Whole Food vs Processed Food vs Ultra Processed Food: What is the Difference?

Whenever you read an article about healthy eating, two foods always creep their way into the writing: whole foods vs processed foods. In fact, we’ve heard and read these words so often that we’ve become desensitized to them. It’s easy to shrug them off by thinking whole foods are healthy, green, and grow from the ground; processed foods are the culprits behind every ailment known to mankind.

Not so fast. Food and what we choose to eat is a little bit more complicated than that. 

Before we get into the details, let us shake up that curiosity in you: Did you know that not all processed foods are bad for you?

That’s the statement of the century, coming from a company specializing in food sensitivity testing. But it’s 100% true. Not all processed foods are bad for you, and we’ll explain why. Let’s dive into the details.

What is considered processed food?

If you were to take a field trip to your kitchen and open your fridge, pantry, and cupboards, we’ll bet that the majority–like 80% of what you see– is made up of processed foods. 

Guess what? That’s not a bad thing. Spices are considered processed foods, so are organic canned tomatoes with no salt added; every single olive you’ve ever eaten is a ‘processed’ food, and so is every dried spice you’ve sprinkled onto vegetables!

Do you see where we’re going with this? Processed foods are foods that have been processed in any way. From canning to preserve them, freezing fruit and vegetables at peak season, fermenting milk to make yogurt, breaking down oat groats to make oatmeal, roasting cashews to make them edible, brining a whole chicken to make it taste better. 

The argument of whole foods vs processed foods is kind of complicated, but it’s easy to wrap your head around once you know what to look out for. 

“If not all processed foods are bad, then why do so many magazines and articles talk about staying away from them?”

That’s because what they’re actually talking about are…

Ultra-processed foods

These are the true villains in the grocery store. From splashing labels like “10% less fat!” on a bag of baked chips with an ingredient list as long as your arm to “NO SUGAR!” on a bag of candy whose third ingredient is aspartame

Ultra-processed foods are the Loki of the food world. Tricky labels and clever marketing hacks work in tandem to convince you to buy nutrient-deficient junk to satisfy that sugar craving while shaving time off of your life span.

The problem is that ultra-processed foods can be very addictive and cost-effective. They’re also ‘easier’ and ‘faster’ to make. For example, if you’re a busy mom, making your kids a box of macaroni and adding that powdered cheese is so much easier than making the dish from scratch with better ingredients. 

Food companies know this. They know that the American consumer wants easy over healthy, three-minute microwave meals over half-hour prep and cook times. So, they process and process and add ingredients until you can’t pronounce the names of the ingredients at all.

What are ultra-processed foods?

The best way to identify ultra-processed foods is by checking your food labels. No matter what the front of that seemingly healthy big-brand granola bar says, if the ingredient list is too long and there are chemicals and dyes that you can’t pronounce, then dump it back on the shelf and find a better alternative. 

The same thing goes for any packaged food that you buy. Always check your food labels and avoid anything that claims to be ‘low-fat’ or ‘diet’. Remember, they have to make up for the missing ingredients that make it taste good, and the way that food companies do that is usually by using chemicals or extra sugar.

Okay, so what are whole foods?

Whole foods are foods that are as close to natural as possible. They haven’t had ingredients added to them and haven’t been refined in any way. Think of raw fruit and vegetables, eggs, raw meat, nuts and seeds, legumes, etc.

Pretty straightforward, right?

So, for example, milk is a whole food, but once you add the happy bacteria to make yogurt, what you end up with is a lightly processed food that is still good for you. 

A lot of times, lightly processed foods end up in the ‘whole foods’ category (frozen fruit, roasted nuts, some canned beans), which is a good thing. Remember, the food that you are trying to avoid is ultra-processed. Not lightly processed.

The Times are Changing

In the past, the mentality was ‘as long as it satisfies a craving, is easy to make, and tastes good, then who cares?’

Now, education and the correlation between nutrition and a host of illnesses are creating a new breed of health-conscious consumers, and it’s up to the food companies to keep up with the pace of change. Until they catch up, consumers need to look closely at labels to see past the clever marketing and get right to the heart of the matter. 

Your health may depend on it!

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