When is whole food no longer whole?
Our bodies are designed to run on a variety of naturally occurring foods that are rich in nutrients, energy and dietary fibre. Whole foods are the ultimate fuel for humans but, with conscious management, we can also enjoy some processed foods as well.
What is Whole Food?
- is fresh, natural animal or plant produce that has had no, or minimal, processing to make it edible.
- is free from added sugar, sodium (salt) or fat, and additives such as preservatives, artificial flavourings and colourings.
- does not have a long ‘shelf life’ so it needs to be consumed soon after purchase or picking.
- is not usually heavily packaged or promoted.
- smells fresh and organic, and you can eat as much as you like!
The Processing Spectrum
Food processing occurs when fresh plant or animal produce is combined with additives and prepared, cooked, fried or refined to create a new kind of food. Food may be processed in the home, in a restaurant or café, or in a factory.
There are many grades of processing with natural whole foods at one end of the spectrum, and mass-produced food products at the other (see below). As you increase the additives and/or processing, the food moves further and further away from its natural state.
For example, when you boil an egg, you are processing the whole food just enough to make it edible. However, if you scramble it and add milk, cheese, salt and pepper, you have increased the processing. A commercially manufactured quiche takes the humble egg to the far right of the spectrum.
Processing usually increases the Glycemic Index (GI) rating of Carbohydrate foods and the overall energy value of the meal (kJ/Cal). Essential nutrients may also be destroyed. Highly processed foods may have a negative impact on your digestive system and metabolic processes, which can result in constipation, weight gain and other health issues.
When you regularly eat packaged food, it can be difficult to keep track of your daily nutrient and energy intake. Refined foods are digested more quickly so you feel hungry again sooner. This can lead to extra kilojoules slipping in unnoticed.
It is almost impossible to overdose on whole food because the fibre and bulk of unprocessed plant and animal produce satisfies your appetite and keeps you humming for a long time.
Packaged food products are required by law to display nutritional information, which is helpful; however, most restaurant, café and fast food meals are not served with a nutrition label.
The best way to make sure you and your family get the recommended daily dose of nutrients and energy is to prepare your own food, whenever possible, from a wide variety of fresh, whole ingredients.
Try to choose foods that are as close as possible to the whole food end (left) of the food processing spectrum.
Download the ‘Food Processing Spectrum’ poster to see how your favourite foods rate. It’s fun to brainstorm other food processing examples with your family – try starting with the food product and working backwards to discover its whole food origins!