Real and Processed Food: In Favor of Real Food

Look at your food choices. Are you opting for real food over processed food? It has been said time and time again that you are what you eat and, while we all know this, we sometimes slip up and start choosing packaged cookies over fresh fruit. We all need a little reminder to get back on track sometimes. But what exactly is the right food choice? We often run into gray areas. How much food processing is acceptable? Here, we’ll analyze the latest research to clear up any doubts you might have and help you choose real, nourishing food.

3 types of food

Most of us are familiar with the difference between real and processed food, but after a high-profile nutrition study in 2016, nutritionists made a further distinction between processed and ultra-processed food. They are now dividing foods into 3 types: real, processed and ultra-processed food. So what does all this really mean?

1. Real food

The “real food” group consists of unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Unprocessed foods are defined as the edible parts of plants or animals after they are separated from nature. For example, plant products like seeds, nuts, leaves, roots and fruits that are harvested, as well as animal products like eggs, milk and muscle, are considered unprocessed foods. Imagine picking an apple directly from a tree. That apple is unprocessed, sourced directly from nature.

The word “processed” has a bad reputation in the nutrition world, but processing isn’t always bad. Minimal processing like drying, grinding, roasting, pasteurizing, boiling, freezing, vacuum packaging, fermentation etc. prepares natural food items for consumption. None of these processes add other substances like sugar, fat or salt to the original product. They are intended to allow for longer storage of unprocessed foods or to allow for a different form of food preparation. Freezing vegetables, for example, doesn’t alter the original product; it simply allows you to store those veggies for a longer period of time. Similarly, yogurt is considered to be minimally processed because it involves the fermentation of milk, but this doesn’t make it unhealthy; on the contrary, this type of processing provides the added benefits of probiotics.

2. Processed food

Processed foods are obtained by adding sugar, oil, salt, etc. to unprocessed foods. Most processed foods contain just two or three ingredients and the purpose of adding these is to enhance the flavor or to prolong the food’s durability. Adding salt to nuts and seeds, for example, puts them in this category. The salt adds flavor and, in moderate amounts, is good for the body. Canned fruits in antioxidant-infused syrups also fall into this group. This preparation allows for a longer shelf life. While the added sugar isn’t desirable, it isn’t necessarily harmful in small quantities. Adding canned peaches to unsweetened yogurt, for instance, is not a terrible food choice, although fresh peaches would be better. It’s certainly a better choice than artificially sweetened, peach-flavored yogurt. Consider this the “enjoy in moderation” category.

3. Ultra-processed food

Ultra-processed foods usually consist of five or more ingredients and include artificial additives, preservatives or products that are obtained through further processing of food products, such as whey, gluten, hydrogenated oils, maltodextrin, protein isolate, monosodium glutamate (MSG), dyes, artificial sweeteners, etc. The purpose of these artificial substances is to create a desired flavor and/or to produce a product that is ready to eat with minimal preparation (microwaveable food, for example). Unfortunately, these substances can cause obesity, high cholesterol, heart problems and even cancer. This is obviously the category of food you want to avoid entirely.

Our diet according to the Real Food movement

It should come as no surprise that nutritionists are firm advocates of the Real Food movement: choose real foods over ultra-processed foods whenever possible. Incorporate moderately processed foods sparingly, making sure to keep your salt and sugar intake in check. Enjoy home-cooked meals made with real, whole foods like organic meat, chicken or poultry, a wide variety of vegetables seasoned to your liking, fresh fruits, nuts and seeds, dairy products without added sugars, whole grains like oatmeal, etc. The choices are endless and delicious. If you cook your own food, you know exactly what’s going in it and can steer clear of harmful ingredients.

If you are busy and always under a time crunch, scan the Internet for quick, simple recipes that use real ingredients. Eating well doesn’t have to be time-consuming. Pack some nuts, seeds and dried fruit for snacks, for example. Make a quick veggie omelette for dinner rather than opting for pre-packaged microwavable dinners. Get creative and try to recreate your favorite desserts using only fruits instead of refined sugar. You’d be surprised to see how many yummy recipes you can come up with using only real, whole foods.

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