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The Definition of Processed Foods Clarified: Do you Eat Clean Food?

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Whole to Process Foods Spectrum - Mango
Credit: Hollster

If you gravitate toward eating a whole foods diet and try to minimize the consumption of processed foods, then read on. How many times have you opened a purported ‘whole foods’ recipe, only to find that you have to add a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup or a package of preservative-laden food with ingredients that no one can pronounce?

Perhaps I misunderstood what whole foods are. I thought that edibles could could only be considered whole if you basically plucked it from Mother Earth and ate it while in its original, raw, unaltered state, like: fruits, veggies, nuts, and meats. 

What is a Whole Food?

Dictionary.com defines whole foods as a ‘food with little or no refining or processing that does not contain any additives or preservatives’[1]. Perhaps that’s where the misunderstanding lies; maybe the general public does not understand what little refining or little processing means. After all, the word 'littleis a subjective word, with no defined quantifiable measurement.

What is a Processed Food?

The International Food Information Council Foundation defines processed as “…any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat. It can be as simple as freezing or drying fruits or vegetables to preserve nutrients and freshness, or as complex as formulating a frozen meal with the right balance of nutrients and ingredients [2].” There seems to be some overlapping between 'whole' and 'processed' definitions. A whole food can be processed a little bit and still be considered a whole food; while a processed food is a whole food that was processed a little bit but is no longer deemed a whole food because it has been processed, even a little bit. Sound confusing?

The word, ‘processed’, has evolved to become a connotation for ‘unhealthy’. It’s widely agreed upon that eating chow in its most raw state is healthiest, minus the risks of eating raw stuff 

Mango Iced Tea
contaminated with different types of bacteria (this depends on where you get your food, of course). When we process our foods, some of its nutritional value is destroyed; the extent that we process it from its natural state affects which, and how much, of those nutrients are destroyed[3]. Food manufacturers routinely fortify their products by replacing those lost nutrients in order to prevent diseases related to vitamin deficiencies[4], such as scurvy or rickets. As an added bonus, these commercial food processors get to advertise that their products contain more nutritional value than other companies’ products.

Does Processing Our Foods Affect Its Phytonutrients?

While it is very kind of our food manufacturers to provide this nutrient-fortification service for the benefit of human-kind, beneficial parts of our whole foods, like phytonutrients (also known as phytochemicals), are destroyed when our foods are processed or refined[5]. Plant foods produce these natural, bitter-tasting phytochemicals to protect themselves by repelling diseases and pests. While our human taste buds are also somewhat repelled by the bitter phytonutrient taste of sprouts, beets, and broccoli, these phytonutrients may help reduce the risks of cancers, heart disease, asthma, and other diseases[6]. Thus, in order to give ourselves the best chance at fighting and preventing diseases, we should ingest larger quantities of plant-based foods, as close to their original states as possible.

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Including more raw foods in our diets may help us prevent diseases like cancer and heart disease.

Where Should We Draw the Line?

 So, where do we draw the line between whole and processed foods when it seems that the definition of ‘processed’ varies from person to person; it even varies from expert to expert. Categorizing foods into processed versus whole foods can be really confusing since there is such a wide spectrum between whole foods and foods that have been processed so much that they shouldn't even be labeled as edible anymore. 

Whole to processed foods spectrum - Apple
Credit: Hollster

Raw Foods Guideline (as whole as whole gets)

The strictest way to follow a whole foods diet would be to live a completely raw foods life. While I would ideally like to eat 100% raw foods 100% of the time to be as healthy as I can be, I just can’t bring myself to eat everything in its raw state at all times. I love eating raw fish, like sashimi, but I’m not ready to kill a buffalo and eat its raw, beating heart right at the kill site, like Kevin Costner’s character does in the movie, ‘Dances With Wolves’; and who would want to eat a raw artichoke or asparagus? But we can try to include as many raw fruits and veggies in my diet as possible by keeping fresh vegetables and fruits around at all times. 

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This more mainstream whole foods approach is more family-friendly.

Mainstream Whole Foods Guideline

Typical mainstream whole foods lists include pretty much anything that does not have a label printed on it, or if it does have a label on it, the listed ingredients should only be recognizable whole foods, like a can of corn: salt, corn, and water. A mainstream whole foods diet typically "...includes plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits and nuts, and animal foods such as eggs, meat, fish and poultry"[7]. When investigating which type of whole foods diet to sample, a mainstream whole foods diet makes for a much easier transition from processed foods; we don't feel like we're as deprived when we can eat freshly made guacamole with homemade baked tortilla strips or homemade fresh mango salsa atop a freshly grilled chicken breast.

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This is a pretty awesome book for learning how nutrition affects the body. It also has some family-friendly recipes in it too.

My Personal Whole Foods Paleo-style Guideline

Since I'm human, I probably stick to the below diet about 75% of the time. I break down and eat chocolate, ice cream, and breads probably a few times per week; or I'll have a soda with my popcorn when I go to the movies. But I strive to keep the following tenet in mind: 

If it doesn’t look like it was recently growing out of or running on the ground we probably shouldn’t be eating it.

Here's my paleo-esque diet guideline:

  • Steamed, grilled, or baked chicken, beef, pork, fish (raw or cooked), or other clean meats; preferably hormone and antibiotic free, definitely no fillers or any ingredients that I would have trouble pronouncing.
  • Bone broth soups (like split pea with ham hocks or chicken noodle with a whole chicken…you don’t have to even eat the meat if you don’t want to)
  • Veggies & fruits (in order of preference)
    • All fresh (none pre-packaged)
    • Frozen (no sauces or fillers)
    • Canned (no unnatural fillers and low sodium)
  • Nuts & seeds (raw or dry roasted, not salted)
  • Legumes (fresh or canned with low sodium)
  • Eggs
  • Dairy in very small amounts – used only to accent foods, not as a main ingredient
  • No breads
  • Soy Sauce, Mustard, Vinegars, Fresh & Dried Herbs
  • Rice (Brown & White)
  • Coconut, olive, peanut, or other similar oils
  • Honey

Food Replacement Note:

Replacing the foods we miss with synthetic versions of it, like: vegan hot dogs or tofu chicken, cookies and cakes made with weird synthetic eggs and processed gluten free flours can be just as detrimental as the mainstream processed foods we see in TV commercials. We’re just trading one problem for another; it’s better to either eat the real thing or not eat it at all.


Eating Cleanly

The Process of Change

Learning to eat more cleanly is a long process; for me, change was, and still is, very slow. It's common to take two steps forward, then a step or two backward throughout this process. Most of us are imperfect. It takes time to re-learn that whole stuff actually tastes really good all by itself. Here are a few tips to help us progress toward the cleaner eating picture:

  1. Keep whole snacks and water around your desk at work, such as: raw nuts, bananas, and apples.
  2. Add fresh fruit slices to your water wide-mouthed water bottle, like: lemon, lime, and orange.
  3. Make healthy homemade soup and store it in the fridge for quick and easy access when hungry.
  4. Detox yourself from your sugar addiction; refined sugar is everywhere! It took me 5 years to cut out my daily sodas and specialty coffees. Cut out one item at a time but allow yourself the soda or coffee as a treat once per week. The less you consume, the less you'll want it. Sugary goodies start to taste weirder over time when you go back and try them again.
  5. Keep an eating diary. Don't beat yourself up when you have a bad eating day; pick yourself up and start over the next day.
  6. Eat every 2 hours to prevent blood sugar swings that leave you craving the bad stuff for a quick, but short-lived, energy spike.
  7. Be kind to yourself and forgive yourself when you mess up. Remind yourself that this takes time. We never arrive at our destination; life is a slow process of continuous self-improvement where it's hard to see the big picture when it is so close to your face.
Eat to Live: The Amazing Nutrient-Rich Program for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss, Revised Edition
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This author does such a good job in linking how what we eat can reverse diseases and heal us. Some of his recipes in the back of the book taste better than the store-bought stuff - like the balsamic and dijon date dressings. They're DELICIOUS!


Oct 19, 2015 7:14am
Great article
Oct 24, 2015 1:04pm
Thanks! You can probably tell that Im pretty passionate about food, lol.
Oct 24, 2015 1:32pm
I like your encouraging attitude to people who are trying to eat better, and the fact that you acknowledge that you eat "naughty" food now and then. Since I have been eating as naturally as possible I find that processed food definitely tastes weird. Cutting out sugar is more difficult but as I continue down this path, I find I am losing my "sweet tooth."

And raw asparagus is delicious, by the way!
Oct 25, 2015 2:08pm
Thanks so much! I have lost my sweet tooth, as well. It's never been easier to say no to cookies and ice cream, or just stop after one serving because things taste too weird. My biggest sugar weakness red wine, followed by fatty foods...like gourmet cheeses, tortilla chips, and creamy sauces. The 'Eat To Live' book taught me that I can make things creamy by blending in cashews or avocado for creamy dressings...at least it's healthier fats...lol.
I'll have to try raw asparagus...I usually blanch it (my favorite way to eat it...with a little balsamic vinegar drizzled on it).
Oct 30, 2015 8:54am
Very well done, a good balance of solid nutritional principles while acknowledgement that making major lifestyle changes takes time. This sends a much sounder message than shows like "The Biggest Loser".
Nov 27, 2015 10:28pm
Thanks - I'm a big fan of that show. I think researching this stuff is my way of keeping my mind on doing what's best for my own body too. I constantly stumble and eat crap.
Oct 30, 2015 8:54am
Very well done, a good balance of solid nutritional principles while acknowledgement that making major lifestyle changes takes time. This sends a much sounder message than shows like "The Biggest Loser".
Nov 5, 2015 5:04am
I really like this article! Great information and a good read. :)
Nov 27, 2015 10:29pm
Thanks, Grace! I'm really trying to work on writing less while saying more. "A good read" means a lot to me. :-)
Nov 10, 2015 4:10pm
useful article
Nov 27, 2015 10:30pm
Thanks, Kevin!
Nov 27, 2015 2:07am
Thank you for the article! Very interesting and intriguing.
Nov 27, 2015 10:30pm
I'm so glad you liked it!
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  1. "wholefood." Dictionary.com. 18/09/2015 <Web >
  2. The International Food Information Council Foundation "What is a Processed Food? You Might Be Surprised!." Food Insight. 18/09/2015 <Web >
  3. Kara Mayer Robinson "Raw Foods Diet." WebMD: Diet and Weight Management. 2/06/2015. 29/09/2015 <Web >
  4. International Food Information Council Foundation "Food Fortification in Today’s World." Food Insight. 20/06/2014. 29/09/2015 <Web >
  5. Nicole Cormier The Everything Guide to Nutrition. Avon: Adams Media, 2011.
  6. Eric Metcalf, MPH "Phytonutrients." WebMD: Diet and Weight Management. 29/10/2014. 29/09/2015 <Web >
  7. Aglaee Jacob "A Sample Day for a Whole Food Diet." SF Gate: Healthy Eating. 29/09/2015 <Web >

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