Whole vs. Processed
Whole foods are ingredients in their raw, unprocessed, and unrefined state, in contrast to foods that have undergone processing and preservation methods like curing, cooking, drying, or canning. As Dr. Nadine Burke, of San Francisco’s Bayview Child Health Center, says, whole foods are “the kind of foods that don’t need a label.”
Food processing extends the harvest through the seasons, prevents spoilage during storage and transport, and transforms raw ingredients into something new. Many of the foods we enjoy today, such as butter, cheese, pickles, jam, and ketchup, would not exist without food processing. Natural preservation techniques, such as fermentation, can even enhance the nutritional benefits of certain foods.
Some modern processing methods, however, deplete raw foods of vital nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, and healthy fats. For example, white rice is brown rice that has been milled to extend its shelf life. The milling process removes the husk, bran, and germ, destroying iron, fiber, magnesium, fatty acids, B vitamins, and other healthy minerals found in unmilled brown rice. In the US, the FDA requires that white rice be “enriched” with B1 and B3 and iron, in an attempt to add back nutrients that are naturally occurring in rice’s original, whole-grain state.
Industrially processed foods may also contain highly processed additives and preservatives of dubious nutritional value, including sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils (also known as trans fats), refined grains (such as bleached white flour), MSG, and artificial colorings, flavorings, and sweeteners. Many of these processed ingredients are actually detrimental to our health. Corn syrup, a corn derivative that is used as a sweetener in many processed foods, has been linked to a host of health risks, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
The Whole You
Seek out unprocessed or minimally processed foods, such as raw fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and real dairy, fish, and meat. Buy direct from the farmers market, or shop around the perimeter of the grocery store (as Michael Pollan recommends), where fresh foods are generally shelved.
When buying packaged foods, read labels. Avoid artificial ingredients, like corn syrup, trans fats, and difficult-to-pronounce additives. Foods that have fewer—and more recognizable—ingredients are generally better for your health.
Enjoy whole foods in their raw goodness or simply cooked or prepared. Besides the nutritional benefits, adding more whole ingredients to your diet means that your food will be fresher, tastier, and closer to the source—which is better for your health and the environment.
How does a glass of orange stack up nutritionally to a whole orange? Check out the nutritional facts on Nutrition Data. The World’s Healthiest Foods provides a wealth of whole food info, recipes, and tips. For recipes and tutorials on real food cooking, go to The Nourished Kitchen.
What whole foods do you enjoy?