Whole Foods and Processed Foods: What are the differences?

“Whole foods” and “processed foods” are important concepts to understand when eating to lose weight. For this article, I will refer to whole foods and processed foods as “WF’s” and “PF’s”, respectively.

Simple Definitions

WF’s are foods in their natural form, untouched by man; they maintain their natural structure, chemical composition, and have no added substances. PF’s are foods that have been changed, by varying degrees, from their natural form; they have a different structure, chemical composition, and have one or more added substances (synthetic or otherwise).

Examples of WF’s:

  • Apples
  • Chicken breast
  • Asparagus
  • Almonds
  • Potatoes

Examples of PF’s:

  • Apple juice
  • Chicken Nuggets
  • Veggie chips
  • Candied almonds
  • Potato chips

Looking a bit deeper: the WF – PF spectrum

It must be noted that WF’s and PF’s aren’t two discrete concepts, as they exist on either end of a spectrum. There are absolute WF’s, which are foods in their exact natural form, such as an apple that’s just been picked off a branch. There are also extremely processed PF’s*, which can be complex amalgamations of several natural and artificial constituents, such as cheese puffs. Between absolute WF’s and extremely processed PF’s, there exists a spectrum of foods that are either “more whole” or “more processed”.

The WF – PF Spectrum

On the spectrum below, the further a food is to the left, the more whole it is. The further a food is to the right, the more processed it is.

 All images used in this diagram were retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page and are public domain and freely-licensed educational media content. This diagram, as a whole, is property of this website, and requires acquisition of permission before its re-use.

All images used in this diagram were retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page and are public domain and freely-licensed educational media content. This diagram, as a whole, is property of this website, and requires acquisition of permission before its re-use.

Here are some examples of different WF’s and how they transform along the spectrum towards a more processed state:

• Steel cut oats** → rolled oats → instant oats → instant oats with added sugar

• Apple → cooked apple slices → apple sauce with no added sugar → apple sauce with added sugar → apple juice

• Sprouted bread** → multi-grain bread → whole wheat bread → white bread

* There is no such thing as an absolute PF, as food-processing can go on indefinitely with progressing technology. However, you can’t make an absolute WF any more whole.

**These 2 foods aren’t absolute WF’s, as they have gone through some degree of processing. However, they are the most whole in this example, compared to their more processed forms.

Compositional and digestion differences between WF’s and PF’s

As you can see, there is a large gray area between absolute WF’s and extremely processed PF’s. Processed foods aren’t necessarily unhealthy to eat on a regular basis, it just depends how processed they are. Generally speaking, the closer a food is to its whole form on the WF – PF spectrum, the healthier it is. This is because, when compared to PF’s, WF’s contain greater amounts of water, fiber, molecular complexity, and micronutrients. Furthermore, PF’s tend to contain greater amounts of sugar and salt, which are not healthy to consume in large amounts on a daily basis. To further explain the compositional and digestion differences between WF’s and PF’s, here is an excerpt from an article I wrote entitled “How Modern American Society Undermines Healthy Eating”:

Whole foods typically have a greater content of water and fiber when compared to processed foods. Water and fiber reduce calorie-density and contribute to a sensation of fullness. Meat protein digests slowly due to its complex molecular structure. Nuts and seeds are primarily fat, and fat digests slowly because it has to go through a time-consuming digestive process called emulsification, which is essentially the splitting of fat globules into separate droplets. Nuts and seeds also contain fiber, which as we already know, contributes to a sensation of fullness. Leafy & green vegetables typically contain high levels of fiber, water, and micronutrients, but do not contain many absorbable calories due to their indigestible cellular structure.  However, tuber & root vegetables tend to have more absorbable calories than their leafy & green siblings because tubers & roots contain a substantial amount of non-fibrous complex carbohydrate, which digests slowly due to its…well, complex molecular structure.”

In contrast to WF’s, PF’s generally have:

  • Lower amounts of water
  • Lower amounts of fiber
  • Lower amounts of micronutrients
  • Increased calorie-density
  • Increased amounts of sugar and salt
  • Lesser cost and greater availability

Comparing the general health differences between WF’s and PF’s:

► WF’s have greater amounts of water and fiber compared to PF’s. Water and fiber contribute to a sensation of fullness, which helps prevent over-eating.

► In addition to contributing to fullness, greater amounts of water and fiber also make WF’s less calorie-dense. Lower calorie-density helps prevent unhealthy weight gain.

► WF’s contain more micronutrients than PF’s. Adequate intake of micronutrients is essential for optimal function of the body’s metabolic processes.

► PF’s contain greater amounts of calories and sugar, which can contribute to the onset of chronic diseases such as type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease [1].

► PF’s contain greater amounts of salt, which can contribute to the onset of hypertension [2,3].

► Unfortunately, PF’s are more available and less expensive than WF’s. This is one reason why demographics with a lower socioeconomic status tend to be less healthy [4].

Investigating the “process of processing”

Let’s use an example of a medium sized whole apple, which is about 6.5 oz.

6.5 oz whole apple (an absolute WF) [5]:

  • Total calories: 85 cals
  • Carbohydrates: 23 g
  • Sugar: 17 g
  • Fiber: 4 g
  • Calorie-density: about 13 calories per 1 ounce
  • Ingredients: apple

Processing method #1: If apples are peeled, cooked, blended, and mixed with other ingredients, you have apple sauce:

4 oz of Mott’s apple sauce [6]:

  • Total calories: 90 cals
  • Carbohydrates: 24 g
  • Sugar: 22 g
  • Fiber: 1 g
  • Calorie-density: about 22 calories per 1 ounce
  • Ingredients: apples, high fructose corn syrup, water, ascorbic acid (vitamin C)

Notice that there is less fiber, more sugar, and a greater calorie-density in the apple sauce. The processing removed much of the fiber, and then added sugar, resulting in a greater calorie-density. Still, you get some water and micronutrients from the original apple.

Processing method #2: If apples are sliced and mostly dehydrated, you have dried apple slices:

1 oz of Tierra Farm dried apple slices [7]:

  • Total calories: 70 cals
  • Carbohydrates: 19 g
  • Sugar: 16 g
  • Fiber: 2.5 g
  • Calorie-density: 70 calories per 1 ounce
  • Ingredients: apples

With dried apple slices, the calorie-density skyrockets by over 500% due to a high concentration of sugar. However, dried apple slices do contain significant amounts of fiber, but because there is a lack of water, the high fiber content isn’t enough to keep the calorie-density down. Low calorie-dense foods usually have a significant amount of both water and fiber. In addition, the combination of water and fiber contributes to fullness better than either substance alone.  Notice that the ingredient list doesn’t tell the whole story of a food’s nutrition. The ingredient in an apple is of course just an apple, but the same goes for dried apple slices. Yet, the nutrition of each differs greatly.

Processing method #3: If you completely remove all solid material from the apple, you have apple juice:

  • 8 fl. oz of Mott’s apple juice [8]:
  • Total calories: 120 cals
  • Carbohydrates: 29 g
  • Sugar: 28 g
  • Fiber: 0 g
  • Calorie-density: 15 calories per 1 fluid ounce (in this case, 1 fluid oz of juice approximately equals 1 oz of weight)
  • Ingredients: water, apple juice concentrate, ascorbic acid (vitamin C)

While the calorie-density of apple juice doesn’t appear that high at 15 calories per ounce, notice that all the carbohydrates are in the form of sugar, except for 1 gram. Also notice that we are dealing with a liquid, which is consumed and digested much more easily than 120 calories in the form of a whole apple.

The water and fiber content must also be considered. In dried apple slices, we had lots of fiber but no liquid. With apple juice, we have the opposite problem, lots of liquid but absolutely no fiber. Remember, the combination of water and fiber results in a low calorie-density and contributes to a better sensation of fullness. In terms of sugar and calorie-content, drinking a glass of apple juice is not that much different than drinking a soda. However, when looking at the ingredients, apple juice appears healthy: water, apple derivatives, and vitamin C. Again, the ingredient list doesn’t tell the whole story of a food’s nutrition.

Let’s investigate the apple juice a bit further by comparing it to a can of soda:

8 fl. oz of Canada Dry ginger ale [9]:

  • Total calories: 95 calories
  • Carbohydrates: 24 g
  • Sugar: 23 g (compared to 28 g in apple juice)
  • Fiber: 0 g
  • Calorie-density: ~12 calories per fluid ounce (compared to 15 calories per 1 fluid ounce for apple juice)
  • Ingredients: carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, sodium benzoate (preservative), natural flavors, caramel color

Notice that apple juice can have a greater concentration of sugar and a greater calorie-density than soda! Fruit juice is often believed to be a healthy food, but in terms of weight loss, its consumption should be limited. When attempting to lose weight, it’s important to limit the consumption of calorie-dense beverages like fruit juice and soda.  Instead of drinking a glass of apple juice, a better option would be eating an apple and drinking a glass of water.

“Processed” doesn’t necessarily mean “unhealthy”

“Processed” and “unhealthy” are not synonymous. In active populations, highly processed calorie-dense beverages like Gatorade can be beneficial, as they can help individuals sustain exercise [10,11,12], and recover from exercise [13]. When rehydrating from exercise-related fluid loss, consuming electrolyte and glucose replacement drinks (e.g. Gatorade and PowerAde) can actually be more effective than pure water [10,12,13]. Whey protein powder, a milk derivative, is a PF that can ensure adequate protein intake and help build muscle mass [14]. In survival situations, calorie-dense foods are extremely valuable, as they supply a high concentration of energy in a small package.

Bottom line: WF’s are generally healthier than PF’s when it comes to regular daily consumption, but don’t discount the value of PF’s in certain situations. At the end of the day, weight loss boils down to total caloric intake and an energy deficit. It is much easier to lose weight on a diet of primarily WF’s.


References

1.) Malik, V. S., Popkin, B. M., Bray, G. A., Després, J. P., & Hu, F. B. (2010). Sugar-sweetened beverages, obesity, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and cardiovascular disease risk. Circulation, 121(11), 1356-1364.

2.) Dahl, L. K., & Love, R. A. (1957). Etiological role of sodium chloride intake in essential hypertension in humans. Journal of the American Medical Association, 164(4), 397-400.

3.) He, J., Ogden, L. G., Vupputuri, S., Bazzano, L. A., Loria, C., & Whelton, P. K. (1999). Dietary sodium intake and subsequent risk of cardiovascular disease in overweight adults. Journal of the American Medical Association, 282(21), 2027-2034.

4.) Drewnowski, A., & Specter, S. E. (2004). Poverty and obesity: the role of energy density and energy costs. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 79(1), 6-16.

5.) Nutrition of a whole apple with refuse:
http://www.calorieking.com/foods/calories-in-fresh-fruits-apples-with-skin-raw_f-ZmlkPTYzODc4.html

6.) Nutrition of Mott’s apple sauce:
https://www.motts.com/products/regular-applesauce/apple-applesauce

7.) Nutrition of Tierra Farm apple slices:      
http://www.tierrafarm.com/OrganicDriedapplerings.aspx

8.) Nutrition of Mott’s apple juice:
https://www.motts.com/products/100-juice/motts-100-original-apple-juice

9.) Nutrition of Canada Dry ginger ale:        
http://www.canadadry.com/products/ginger-ale

10.) Danielson, A., Morris, L., Neiderhauser, L., Stanek, K., & Wolter, J. (2006). The physiological effects of water vs. Gatorade during prolonged exercise. Journal of Undergraduate Kinesiology Research, 1(2), 15-22.

11.) Fritzsche, R. G., Switzer, T. W., Hodgkinson, B. J., Lee, S. H., Martin, J. C., & Coyle, E. F. (2000). Water and carbohydrate ingestion during prolonged exercise increase maximal neuromuscular power. Journal of Applied Physiology, 88(2), 730-737.

12.) Sawka, M. N., Burke, L. M., Eichner, E. R., Maughan, R. J., Montain, S. J., & Stachenfeld, N. S. (2007). American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Exercise and fluid replacement. medicine and science in sports and exercise, 39(2), 377-390.

13.) Shirreffs, S. M., & Maughan, R. J. (2000). Rehydration and recovery of fluid balance after exercise. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 28(1), 27-32.

14.) Hulmi, J. J., Lockwood, C. M., & Stout, J. R. (2010). Effect of protein/essential amino acids and resistance training on skeletal muscle hypertrophy: A case for whey protein. Nutrition & Metabolism, 7(1), 51.