The proliferation of books and magazine articles touting whole foods and prescribing diets consisting exclusively of whole foods is a welcome change from years back when fat-free food diets and diets consisting of one food (remember the grapefruit diet?) were all the rage. The shift toward the importance of fresh food, shopping at farmers’ markets, and eating local and/or organic fresh food whenever possible is exciting. But while whole-food education is on the rise, understanding of processed foods is on the decline. In today’s health-conscious world, the word “processed” is associated with foods to be avoided. The truth is, not everyone has the ability to eat solely whole foods, and the reality is that there is no need to do so. The first thing to know is not all processed food is created equal. Choosing the best processed foods to add to and/or keep in your diet for a balanced, healthy body is a matter of understanding the basic definition of processed food and how foods fall on the spectrum of minimally processed and highly processed foods.
Quite simply, processed foods are any foods altered from their natural state. There are any number of reasons for altering the natural state of the food, including safety and/or convenience. Methods to process foods include but are not limited to canning, freezing, refrigeration, and dehydration. For example, frozen fruit is a processed food because freezing alters the original state of the fruit. At the same time, a candy bar is also a processed food. When explaining the difference between processed and whole foods, I often instruct my clients to look at the food and ask themselves, “Is this food grown from the earth—on a tree, on a bush, or in the ground?” If the food is not grown from the earth—a peach is not picked from a tree in a frozen state, and there are no trees that grow candy bars—than it is safe to assume that the food is processed.
Frozen fruit and candy bars are both processed foods, but there is a vast difference between their benefit (or lack thereof, in the case of a candy bar) to the body. To further differentiate them, processed foods are classified as either minimally processed or highly processed. Minimally processed foods are simply altered slightly from their original state, often for convenience. For example, fruit is frozen at optimal ripeness, preserving its natural vitamins and minerals, allowing it to maintain high nutritional value. For those of us who may not have access to fresh fruits, frozen fruit is a way to enjoy their benefits all year round. And, as a bonus, frozen fruit is often less expensive than fresh fruit, making it a great option for those on a budget. The simple act of freezing the fruit, without adding any preservatives, makes this processed food minimally processed. Minimally processed foods are generally great additions to a balanced diet.
On the other extreme of the processed food spectrum are highly processed foods. These foods are not only altered from their natural state but also include chemical additives and industry by-products, specifically trans fats, saturated fats, and large amounts of sodium and sugar. Put simply, if you can’t visualize what an ingredient looks like, and certainly, as Michael Pollan says, if you can’t pronounce any one or mutiple ingredients, you probably shouldn’t be eating it. I study, read about, and advise people on nutrition, and I still have no idea what carrageenan, ethoxylated diglycerides, and soy lecithin (to name a few ingredients I frequently encounter on labels) look like! Highly processed foods are not only less filling and generally less satisfying, they are also bad for your overall health. For an optimal balanced diet, highly processed food should be eaten sparingly and ideally avoided altogether.
Follow my cheat sheet for minimally processed and highly processed foods.