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You've probably heard that processed foods are bad and you should only eat whole foods. But, it turns out the age-old debate between whole foods vs processed foods is more myth than reality.
The real issue isn't processing itself, but how much and what kind.
Now, we're not here to dump a bunch of new "food rules" on you. This whole topic is confusing ehough! We just want you to be able to shop for food without worrying about what's in it or how it was made.
By the time you're done with this guide, you'll:
- Understand what processing really is
- Know the difference between processed foods and ultra-processed foods (and their health impacts)
- Be able to make mindful choices without spending hours reading labels
- Know how to swap out ultra-processed foods for healthier options
Sound good? Then let's start with the biggest question...
What Exactly Is a Processed Food?
When we looked into this, we realized the difference between whole foods vs processed foods isn't so straightforward. There's no one definition of "processed food," so it's perfectly normal to be confused.
We found two major reasons why this is so hard to understand:
- "Processed" is a broad definition that includes "any changes" to a food's "natural state"
- At least three different organizations have their own explanations of how much processing qualifies as "ultra-processed"
For example, take a look at how the USDA defines processing:
"...any raw agricultural commodity subjected to washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging, or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state. The food may include the addition of other ingredients such as preservatives, flavors, nutrients and other food additives or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars, and fats."
Confusing, isn't it? By this standard, picking a carrot out of your garden and washing the dirt off makes the carrot a "processed food!"
And that's just the start. The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) suggests processing should be evaluated based on its objectives, such as preserving food for a longer shelf life. The International Food Information Council (IFIC) says there's a need to look at processed foods in light of their nutritional values and the role they play in the diet. There's even a classification system called NOVA with its own "food groups" ranging from unprocessed to ultra-processed.
We thought this was all a little much, so we broke it down for you into four categories that are a lot easier to understand. (We hope! Let us know if we did a good job.[CONTACT LINK, a popup box would be best])
Here would be a great place to do a chart or infographic to compare processed vs. whole
Unprocessed (Whole) Foods
This category includes:
- Whole and cut raw fruits
- Whole and cut raw vegetables
- Fresh herbs
- Dry beans
- Dry grains
- Raw nuts and seeds
- Fresh meat and seafood (without additives)
For the sake of sanity, ignore the fact that washing food or putting it in a package counts as "processing." Those containers of salad mix in the produce department still count as unprocessed.
Minimally Processed Foods
Minimal processing transforms unprocessed foods through basic preparation, including:
- Chopping, freezing, canning or drying vegetables, fruits, mushrooms or herbs
- Grinding grains into flour or flattening them into flakes
- Making pasta from whole grains or beans
- Grinding raw or roasted nuts and seeds into butters
- Fermenting cabbage into sauerkraut
- Sprouting beans, grains, nuts or seeds
- Pasteurizing milk or juice
- Cold-pressing olives to extract the oil
- Slicing or trimming meat
Getting the picture? You can do most of these at home, or they can be done on an industrial scale. Minimal processing never includes any added ingredients.
Processing goes one step—or a few steps—further but still uses recognizable preservation methods. These methods are still very minimal, but salt, sugar or oil are added to the food.
Here are a few examples—many of which you probably have in your fridge or pantry right now:
- Canned fruits, vegetables, and beans with with added salt or sugar
- Jarred vegetables with brine (like olives or artichoke hearts)
- Packaged snacks with added salt, sugar and/or oil (but no other ingredients)
- Smoked meats
- Cheese (and plant-based cheese!)
- Yogurt (dairy and nondairy)
- Most plant-based milks
- Whole-grain bread and other whole-grain baked goods
- Sauces, dressings, jams and nut butters with sugar, salt or oil
The ingredients added during processing either make food last longer or change its flavor. The form and structure stay pretty much the same, except in the case of chemical reactions like fermenting cheese or baking bread.
"Ultra-processing" involves multiple steps that break a food down and rearrange its structure. "Food substances of no or rare culinary use" may be used, which is just an academic way of saying that manufacturers add ingredients like colors, flavor enhancers and isolated proteins, none of which play starring roles in most of the recipes you'd make at home.
Ultra-processed foods don't usually have beneficial components like polyphenols and fiber; they're either removed mechanically or destroyed by high heat during processing. The result is often a high-calorie food with low nutritional value and a long list of additives.
These are the foods you probably think of when you compare whole foods vs processed foods:
- Meats like sausage, hot dogs, chicken nuggets and fish sticks
- Packaged breads and baked goods made with white flour or white sugar
- Most mass-produced sweets, snacks, ready-made meals and breakfast cereals
- Sweetened beverages, including beverages made with artificial sweeteners
- Some plant-based meat and dairy replacements
As you can see, there's a big difference between a processed food, like a loaf of whole-grain bread, and an ultra-processed food, like Wonder Bread. But because most people use the terms interchangeably, there are a lot of misunderstandings—and even fears—surrounding processed foods.
Common Myths About Whole Foods vs Processed Foods
We'd like to clear up a few of the prevailing processed food myths and help you breathe a little easier on your next grocery run. It's no fun avoiding everything that might be processed for fear of making an unhealthy choice. You can miss out on a lot of good food that way!
Here are three misconceptions you can stop worrying about right now:
- All processed foods are unhealthy. Not true! Look at the "minimally processed" and "processed" lists above. Whole-grain toast with peanut butter is made using processed foods. So is oatmeal with frozen berries and veggie chili with canned beans. Including these types of processed foods in your diet can help you eat healthier.
- Everything in a package is processed. If you want to get technical, this is true, but only because putting food into a package counts as "processing." Since healthy foods like frozen vegetables and dry grains usually come packaged, it doesn't make sense to avoid everything in a box, bag, jar or can. A lot of nutritious snacks also come in packages—which is handy when you need something quick to munch on in the middle of a busy day!
- Processing adds chemicals. Not always true! Processed foods might have added oil, salt or sugar, but only ultra-processed foods contain colorings, flavorings and artificial preservatives. It's the difference between the salted French fries you make at home in your air fryer and French fries from a fast food drive-thru, which are fried in hydrogenated oil, flavored with "natural beef flavoring" and treated with a chemical to maintain color.
We know it can be a lot to keep straight. If you’re still having trouble wrapping your mind around the difference between whole foods vs processed foods, think of it like this: Once processing crosses the line from adding basic ingredients to rearranging food structure and mixing in lab-made ingredients, you have an ultra-processed food.
How Do Ultra-Processed Foods Impact Health?
When these foods first came on scene, nobody really thought about how our bodies would react to unfamiliar structures and ingredients. So, many ultra-processed foods replaced whole foods as pantry staples—and staples of daily diets.
Survey data shows just how many of these foods people are eating every day:
- The average American gets 58% of their calories from ultra-processed foods but only 30% from unprocessed and minimally processed foods.
- Intake among kids and teens is even higher, with 67% of calories coming from ultra-processed foods and only 23.5% from unprocessed and minimally processed foods.
The Science of Eating Ultra-Processed Foods
Research is beginning to unpack the health effects of this imbalance between ultra-processed and whole foods. The evidence seems to show that, the more ultra-processed food you eat, the higher your risk of disease.
We dug into the science a bit to get more details:
- A study that followed over 105,000 French adults for up to 10 years showed that eating 10% more ultra-processed food caused a significant increase in overall heart disease and diseases affecting blood flow in the brain.
- Another study of nearly 19,900 Spanish university graduates showed eating four or more servings of ultra processed foods per day increased all-cause mortality risk by 62% compared to fewer than two servings per day. Each additional serving increased risk by 18%.
- Researchers who analyzed 20 studies with over 334,000 total participants found an "obvious" association between high ultra-processed food consumption and an increased risk of dying from any cause ("all-cause mortality"). People who ate more of these foods also tended to suffer from disease and poor health outcomes, including heart disease, metabolic syndrome, depression, irritable bowel syndrome and cancer.
- An analysis of data from 6,000 U.K. residents ages 19 to 96 recorded between 2008 and 2016 showed that those who ate the most ultra-processed food had a higher BMI, bigger waist circumference, and 90% higher odds of being obese.
- Additional U.K. data collected between 2008 to 2014 showed residents got 56.8% of their calories from ultra-processed food. Higher intakes meant people ate less protein and fiber and more sugar, fat, saturated fat and salt. Eighty-five percent of people eating the most ultra-processed foods exceeded their recommended daily limits for sugar and salt!
While it isn't clear why ultra-processed foods appear to have such negative health impacts, one reason could be that eating more of these foods leaves less room for whole foods. Studies looking at diet quality show that diets high in ultra-processed foods have lower overall nutritional value. That's because diets relying on ultra-processed products are usually lower in vitamins A, C, D and E, as well as nutrients like protein, fiber, zinc and calcium.
But there could be more to the story. Compounds created during processing, as well as additives in ultra-processed products and their packaging, might have their own effects, including disrupting the gut microbiome, causing inflammation and interfering with hormones.
All this research about ultra-processed foods has a bright side: It suggests that tipping the balance of your diet to include more whole foods can have positive health effects. (And there's a lot of other science to back this up!)
We know you've probably heard this advice before, and we don't want you to walk away feeling like you just got another diet lecture with a side of judgment. Instead, we'd like to share a few suggestions that can help you start tipping the balance of what you eat in your favor.
Whole Foods vs Processed Foods: Changing Your Diet
This section is another good place for a swap chart
The first thing to remember is that eating more unprocessed, minimally processed and healthy processed foods is a dietary pattern, not a "diet." It's part of your journey to a healthier life, and it's a lot more satisfying and fun than going on a diet!
You don't need to follow any complicated food lists or restrictive food rules; you just need to know what to look for when you shop and how to make swaps in your meals and snacks.
Ready to try it? Here we go!
How to Tell if a Food is Ultra-Processed
You can't always determine how processed a food is just by looking—unless you look at the ingredient list. Flip the package over, read the label and keep an eye out for:
- Artificial colors and/or flavors
- Chemical preservatives
- Refined grains and/or sugars
- Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils
- Protein isolates
If a product has one or more of these ingredients, it counts as ultra-processed.
Don't worry if reading labels seems a little tedious at first. It's worth practicing! After you do it for a while, you'll be able to recognize most ultra-processed foods at a glance.
Finding Healthy Processed Foods
Your adventures in label reading can pay off in another way: You'll find a lot of processed and minimally processed foods you might otherwise have passed over just because they were in a bag or box.
These foods serve a couple of important purposes:
- Adding diversity, flavor and nutrition to your diet (without a lot of extra prep work)
- Bringing little moments of joy to your day
Why is joy important? Because it's no fun to eat healthier if you don't like what you're eating! It is possible to have convenient, tasty snacks and meals that are also good for you—if you know the difference between ultra-processed and processed foods.
How to Eat More Whole Foods vs Processed Foods
Because the science shows that eating a lot of ultra-processed food leaves out important nutrients and increases disease risk, it follows that you'll have a better-quality diet if you replace these foods with something less processed.
It's as simple as making swaps, and that's where the fun comes in! You get to try a bunch of foods you weren't eating before (or weren't eating a lot of) and find your favorite replacements for the ultra-processed staples you've been relying on.
Here are a few easy swaps to get you started:
If you like...
Try this instead!
Air-fried or baked French fries
Seltzer infused with fruit
Granola with fruit
Whole grain pasta, bean pasta or veggie noodles
Whole grain bread or sprouted bread
Changing your mindset about food prep makes a big difference, too. Instead of reaching for ready-made meals, plan to make a few big batches of your favorite dishes throughout the week. Freeze the leftovers in single-portion containers, and ta-da! You'll have your own "ready-to-heat" dinners.
And never underestimate the power of eating a big, hearty salad every day. Serve it with dinner, or eat it as a meal on its own, topped with some beans and nuts or seeds.
(We also like sneaking vegetables into everything: pasta sauce, smoothies, sandwiches, homemade baked goods, oatmeal...)
As you make these small changes, you'll start to crowd the ultra-processed foods out of you diet. You'll be eating so many other delicious (and healthier) foods, you won't have room for the ultra-processed stuff.
It's not as complicated as it sounds, and it gets easier over time. Try reading labels the next time you're shopping for groceries, and experiment with swaps during the course of the week. Leave a comment to let us know how it's going—and share your favorite swap!