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It’s no secret that when it comes to whole foods vs processed foods, it’s whole foods that are healthier for us. But what is the real difference between the two and what should we really be looking for when we do our weekly food shops?

What are processed foods?

Processed Foods

Quite simply, processed foods are foods that have been changed to into something else or have had their nutritional composition changed, for example, salad leaves that have been washed and bagged for convenience. Any time we change the natural state of a food item, that is considered part of processing food.

Processed foods can be energy dense and high calorie products that provide little value to our bodies. In some instances, during the manufacturing process, food companies add additional sugars, preservatives, dyes, saturated and trans fats, which make processed foods more tasty, appealing and provide a longer shelf life. They are manufactured to extend their shelf lives and to be prepared quickly, which means all some or all of the nutritional value is removed. Processed foods include: pizzas, pastries, breads, cakes, cereals and sugary drinks. But they are also prepared and sliced carrots, apples, and tinned fruits.

What is considered whole foods?


Whole foods are plant-based foods that are unprocessed and unrefined. These tend to be foods like corn on the cob, apples, chicken, cucumbers, etc. The main reason why experts tell us that whole foods are better for us than processed foods, is because whole foods are more nutrient dense. This provides the body with nutrients such as fibre, vitamins and minerals, with natural sugars and fat. They can also help the body to reduce cholesterol and therefore disease such as diabetes, maintain weight and regulate blood sugars.

Processed vs. whole foods

Processed vs whole foods

It’s crystal clear that we should aim for whole foods over processed foods where possible. However, processed foods can be a part of a balanced diet too. They can be beneficial to our diets as some milk and juices add calcium and vitamin D, and cereal may have added fibre. Additionally, some types of processed foods allows busy people to eat more fruit and veg.

It is worth being more mindful of processed foods though and paying particular attention to the ingredients that go into making them. Look for the hidden sugars, sodium and fat, which can be added to breads, pasta sauces, fruit, and canned beans. We’d even suggest looking to the labels of the same products with different brands and we’re sure you’ll be surprised of the differences. Where possible, go for food items that have had fewer ingredients added to them and be particularly mindful of those with lots of ingredients you’ve not heard of.

Aim for the most natural form possible

The aim is to procure foods in as close to their natural state as possible. But we appreciate convenience may play a factor in what you buy. If so, look to the labels to see what additives or ingredients have gone into making or processing the foods you’re buying and seek out the items that are as close to the natural thing as possible. It will still provide some nutritional benefit and certainly count towards your 5 a day, but may not be as nutritionally dense as fruits and vegetables in their natural state. Also, be mindful that it could contribute to higher sugar intakes.

Processed foods also concern meats and dairy

Meat is another important part of our diets as it is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals. As tempting as bacon, sausages, chicken nuggets, fish fingers, and hot dogs may be, they are all processed. Whole meats include fresh lean meat products, fresh fish or shellfish and eggs.

Dairy is a good source of energy and protein, as well as including vitamins, minerals and calcium. When it comes to dairy, it’s tricky as almost all dairy has been processed in some form or other.  Milk and eggs are the best forms of dairy but the debate goes on about the health benefits of whole vs. semi vs. skimmed milk. As for cheese, Swiss, Gouda, Parmesan, Provolone and some cheddars are available unprocessed. This is perhaps the category of food we need to pay most attention to when shopping- check the labels as it’ll state whether the item has been processed or not.

Tips to shopping processed vs. whole foods

processed vs whole foods

To get the most out of whole foods and to incorporate them into your daily routine, you should follow our few simple rules:

  1. Buy seasonal foods from your local farmer’s market.
  2. Avoid supermarket aisles and take time to shop around the fresh food area.
  3. Check the labels for an indication on whether the food item has been processed and look out for chemicals (especially in ‘low fat’ categorised foods’). If there are a lot of obscure names and details- it’s been processed.
  4. Fill half your plate with fruit and veg.
  5. Try growing your own fruit and vegetables.

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