What 'Unprocessed' Really Means

Here's what you need to know about unprocessed foods and your health

(RxWiki News) Most people have heard discussions about "processed" vs. "unprocessed" foods. But what does that really mean?

In general, unprocessed foods are thought to be better for your health. However, there's a fair degree of nuance and a whole lot more to understand.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about unprocessed foods.

What Are Unprocessed Foods?

Any food that has changed from its natural state is considered a processed food. By extension, an unprocessed food is a food we eat in its natural form.

Here are some examples of unprocessed foods:

  • Apples
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Spinach
  • Fish

And here are some examples of processed foods:

  • Bread
  • Cookies
  • Cheese
  • Crackers
  • Hot dogs

Types of Food Processing

While any food that has undergone some sort of change is technically processed, there are degrees of processing to be aware of. Some foods can be more processed than others, and, in general, the less processed they are, the better for health.

Processing is inescapable for some foods that we still consider healthy. For example, olive oil has undergone processing. It begins as olives and is pressed and packaged to become olive oil.

Meanwhile, some beans have to be dried and some vegetables frozen in order to be preserved. While that is technically processing, it is considered minimal processing that has no real effect on the nutritional value of the food.

Foods like bread and canned fruit, vegetables and fish may all be thought of as processed foods. They typically are made of a handful of ingredients and don't require any further cooking or processing in order to be edible.

On the far end of the spectrum, we have ultra-processed foods. These are foods that are so processed that they don't even resemble any kind of whole food. For example, many sugary breakfast cereals have undergone several steps of processing before they reach store shelves.

Benefits of Unprocessed Foods

Eating fewer processed foods and more unprocessed foods can provide several benefits to your health:

  • Unprocessed foods tend to contain less sodium, sugar and unhealthy fat than processed foods. Diets low in sodium, sugar and unhealthy fats have been linked to broadly positive health outcomes.
  • Unprocessed foods tend to contain more fiber than processed foods. Fiber has been linked to bowel regulation, blood sugar control and weight maintenance.
  • Unprocessed foods tend to pack a lot of vitamins and minerals, which are essential to all kinds of vital processes in the body.

Are Unprocessed Foods Always Healthy?

Does that mean that all unprocessed foods are always healthy to eat? Absolutely not. Like anything, unprocessed foods should be eaten in moderation. For example, if you ate nothing but pumpkin seeds all day long, you would be eating an unprocessed food, but you might be getting too much fat or salt.

Meanwhile, eating too much fruit might mean that you're consuming too much sugar. There are plenty of examples like this, but in general, opting for unprocessed foods over processed foods is thought to be the healthy approach.

Talk to your health care provider before making any major changes to your diet.

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Review Date: 
June 5, 2022