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Decoding Your Diet: Unraveling the Difference between Processed and Unprocessed Food


What you eat has a big impact on your health. But did you know that not all foods are created equal? Knowing the difference between processed and unprocessed food is important to enable you to make healthy diet choices.   Processed foods often contain unhealthy fats, sugar, and sodium. Additionally, they usually lack essential nutrients. Unprocessed foods, on the other hand, are whole, unprocessed or minimally processed foods that are closer to their natural state. They are a better choice for your health.


vegetables, food, ingredients


Ultra Processed Foods vs Minimally Processed Foods


Ultra-processed foods are all the rage today. Many companies claim to have the “better burger” or the one that “tastes just like meat.” But ultra-processed does not usually mean healthy. Sure, these heavily processed foods might be quick and easy to prepare. And with those added sugar, salt, and fats, they might keep your taste buds happy, too. But most heavily processed foods are dangerous to your health. They lack essential nutrients and often contain saturated fats and other additives.


cupcake, dessert, coffee cup


In this article, we will take a closer look at the difference between processed and unprocessed foods. We discuss the health benefits of unprocessed foods and how to make them a part of your diet. Additionally, I’ll provide a list of highly processed foods, also called ultra processed, to help you understand the foods to avoid.


mushrooms, nature, tomatoes


Image Source: FreeImages


Healthy Dietary Guidelines


Diet and nutrition form the cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle. They are the sources of energy for our bodies, providing essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that help to maintain our physical health and mental well-being.


However, not all foods are created equal. Some foods provide nourishment to our bodies, while others may cause harm. This dichotomy lies primarily in the difference between processed and unprocessed foods.


Understanding the distinction between processed and unprocessed foods is critical for making informed dietary choices. Yet, many people often find themselves confused about these classifications, primarily due to the myriad of conflicting information available.


Through this article I aim to clarify these concepts to help readers comprehend the complex world of food processing, and how it impacts their diet and overall health.

Understanding Processed Foods


Processed foods are food items that have been modified from their natural state for safety reasons or for convenience. This alteration could involve various methods, such as cooking, canning, freezing, dehydration, or milling.


Common examples of processed foods include breakfast cereals, cheese, canned and frozen vegetables, bread, and beverages. But not all of these are highly processed foods. Some of these actually fit the less processed foods list.


Processing is done to improve the taste and texture of foods, extend their shelf life, and make them more convenient to use. However, not all processed foods are unhealthy. Indeed, some processing methods can enhance the nutritional value of foods, such as fortification with essential nutrients.


Despite these benefits, the majority of processed foods are loaded with unhealthy additives like excess sodium, sugar, and unhealthy fats. They often contain preservatives, artificial colors, and flavors to enhance their appeal and shelf life.

Why Processed Food Is Bad?


Processed foods have been linked with a variety of health issues. They are often high in unhealthy fats and added sugars, which can lead to obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. The high sodium content in most processed foods can increase the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and kidney disease. Moreover, many processed foods are low in fiber, leading to digestive problems.


Processed foods can also create a vicious cycle of unhealthy eating. They are often designed to be hyper-palatable, making it easy to overeat. Additionally, the convenience of processed foods can encourage a dependency on them, leading to a diet that lacks variety and essential nutrients.


salad, fruit, berry

Unveiling Unprocessed Foods


In contrast to processed foods, unprocessed foods are those that have not been altered from their natural state. They are free from additives and typically high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Unprocessed foods include fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and lean proteins.


Unprocessed foods are usually more nutrient-dense than their processed counterparts. They provide the body with essential nutrients required for optimal health. Moreover, a diet rich in unprocessed foods can support weight management and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.


However, unprocessed foods often require more preparation time and have a shorter shelf life than processed foods. Despite these challenges, incorporating more unprocessed foods into your diet offers significant health benefits.

The Difference Between Processed and Unprocessed Food


The primary difference between processed and unprocessed food lies in their nutritional composition and the methods used in their preparation. While processed foods are often convenient and might seem more tasty, they typically contain unhealthy additives and lack essential nutrients. In contrast, unprocessed foods are higher in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and free from harmful additives.


Another key difference is their impact on health. Regular consumption of processed foods has been associated with numerous health issues, including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. On the other hand, a diet rich in unprocessed foods can support overall health, aid in weight management, and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

Minimally Processed Foods


Not all foods fit neatly into the processed foods or unprocessed food categories. Some have been slightly processed but still retain much of their original nutritional benefits. For instance, tofu and tempeh are considered minimally processed derived from soy. To qualify as minimally processed, we consider foods that have some processing but no additives such as sugar, salt, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, or other additives. For instance, tofu and tempeh are considered minimally processed derived from soy. They contain a form of the soy bean, also known as edamame, but in a different form. Other minimally processed foods include whole grain pasta, unflavored plant-based milk, whole grain flours and products made from them, and whole grain cereals. We consider these foods to be close enough to their unprocessed originals to be still quite high in nutritional benefits. Our family enjoys them often along with our regular unprocessed foods.

Vegan Processed Foods: What You Need to Know


While veganism is often associated with a healthy lifestyle, not all vegan foods are created equal. Similar to non-vegan foods, vegan foods can also be processed. Vegan processed foods include items like veggie burgers, vegan cheeses, potato chips, and plant-based milks, among others.


While these foods can be convenient and help to satisfy cravings, they are often highly processed and may contain unhealthy additives. Therefore, while they may be animal-free, vegan processed foods can still pose the same health risks as other processed foods.

The Dangers of Vegan Processed Foods


Just like other processed foods, vegan processed foods can also be detrimental to health. They often contain artificial ingredients, preservatives, high amounts of sodium, and added sugars. Regular consumption of these foods can lead to similar health issues associated with other processed foods, such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.


Moreover, vegan processed foods often lack the essential nutrients found in whole plant foods. Thus, relying heavily on these foods can lead to nutrient deficiencies, particularly if they are not supplemented with a variety of unprocessed plant foods.

Vegan Minimally Processed Foods: A Healthier Option


In contrast to highly processed vegan foods, vegan minimally processed foods offer a healthier alternative. These include foods like tofu, tempeh, and whole grain breads, which undergo minimal processing but retain most of their nutritional value.


Vegan minimally processed foods are typically lower in unhealthy additives and higher in essential nutrients compared to their highly processed counterparts. Incorporating these foods into your diet can help to maintain a balanced and nutritious vegan diet.

Comprehensive Unprocessed Vegan Food List to Consider


For those interested in maintaining a healthy vegan diet, here is a list of unprocessed vegan foods to consider: fruits and vegetables, whole grains (like brown rice, quinoa, and oats), legumes (like beans, lentils, and chickpeas), nuts and seeds, and plant-based proteins (like tofu and tempeh).


These foods are rich in essential nutrients and can form the basis of a healthy vegan diet. They provide a variety of flavors and textures, making your meals enjoyable and nutritionally balanced.

Tips to Transition From Processed to Unprocessed Foods


Transitioning from a diet heavy in processed foods to one based on unprocessed foods can be challenging. However, with a few practical tips, the transition can be made smoother.


First, begin by gradually incorporating more unprocessed foods into your meals. This can be as simple as adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet or swapping refined grains with whole grains.


Second, plan your meals in advance. This can help to avoid the convenience trap of processed foods. You might consider making some meals ahead and freezing them for those times when a quick meal is needed.


We like to prepare double meals. We enjoy one on day one, then usually the remainder a day or two later. Our family also keeps some quick meal ingredients on hand to make sure we never run out of “quick and easy” meal ideas.


Finally, learn to read food labels. Understanding the nutritional content of foods can help to make informed dietary choices.


List of Processed Foods (Vegan)


Below is a list of commonly processed or highly processed foods that are vegan. Keep in mind that there are minimally processed foods in these categories that can replace the processed foods. For instance, vegan ice cream can be made with frozen blended fruit.


  • Vegan meat substitutes (burgers, meat alternatives)
  • plant-based cheese
  • plant-based milk with added sugar or other food additives
  • Vegan ice cream
  • plant-based cookies
  • Vegan chips
  • plant-based frozen meals
  • Vegan granola bars
  • Vegan protein bars
  • Sweetened breakfast cereals
  • canned vegetables (with added sugar, salt, or other ingredients)
  • plant-based pasta (unless whole grain without additives)
  • Vegan bread (some plant-based breads are actually minimally processed)
  • Refined carbohydrates including white flour (wheat that is refined)
  • Sugary drinks


List of Vegan, Plant Based Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods


These foods are unprocessed or minimally processed, meaning that they have been minimally changed from their natural state. They are a good source of nutrients and are a healthy way to follow a vegan diet. Note that some foods contain more nutrients in their raw form while others provide more when cooked properly. Either way, enjoy these whole foods as part of your daily dietary patterns.


  • Fruits: apples, bananas, berries, oranges, grapes, melons, pineapples, etc.
  • Vegetables: broccoli, carrots, celery, cucumbers, leafy greens, onions, peppers, tomatoes, etc.
  • Whole grains: brown rice, quinoa, oats, whole wheat pasta, etc.
  • Legumes: beans, lentils, chickpeas, peanuts, etc.
  • Nuts and seeds: almonds, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, etc.
  • Unsweetened plant-based milks: almond milk, soy milk, oat milk, etc.
  • Unsweetened plant-based yogurts: soy yogurt, almond yogurt, etc.
  • Unprocessed plant-based oils: olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, etc.
  • Spices and herbs: garlic, ginger, turmeric, cumin, etc.
  • Condiments: salsa, hummus, vegan mayonnaise, etc. (always check ingredients as these may contain unhealthy additives)


Ingredients to Avoid


  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Added sugar, including cane sugar
  • Salt
  • Hydrogenated oils
  • Trans fats
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Artificial colors
  • Preservatives


hamburger, p, french fries


Tips for Avoiding Unhealthy Ingredients in Processed Vegan Foods:


  • Choose Foods That Are Labeled As “Unsweetened” Or “No Added Sugar.”


These foods might be labeled as: high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, rice syrup, cane sugar or other sweeteners. Learn the various alternative words and phrases that depict added sugars.


  • Avoid Foods With Added Salts and Other Unhealthy Ingredients.


Salt also goes by many different names including many that have the word sodium within. The American Heart Association provides a list of those to watch for.


  • Look for Foods That Are Made With Whole Grains, Legumes, Nuts, and Seeds.


Keep it simple! If the ingredients include only whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and similar unprocessed ingredients, the resulting food has a good chance of being minimally processed or unprocessed. Combining two or more of these unprocessed foods without over-processing maintains that whole food nutrition benefit. For instance, a vegetable salad made with lettuce, spinach, chick peas, and sunflower seeds is still full of optimal nutritional benefit.


  • Avoid Foods That Are High in Saturated Fat, or Unhealthy Fats.


As vegans, we mostly avoid saturated fats. A few plant-based foods do contain saturated fat, including some nuts, coconut, and some seeds. But by avoiding processed oils, including vegetable oils, we reduce the impact of saturated fat in our diet. Keep in mind that not all saturated fat is bad, however. Some fats are necessary to ensure we receive the full benefit of nutrients from our food.


  • Read Nutrition Facts Label (Food Labels) Carefully and Look for Ingredients That You Do Not Recognize.


My ideal label has few ingredients. Additionally, I want to know what each of the ingredients listed is. If I find something that is hard to pronounce or unknown, I will either look it up or avoid that product. Why? Because so many of the unhealthy ingredients come in various forms. Occasionally, I’ve run into a new superfood by looking up the unknown ingredient. More often than not, however, I find that the unknown ingredient is one I wish to avoid. If in doubt, I avoid it.


food, vegetables, bar

Processed Food vs Unprocessed Food


Understanding the difference between processed and unprocessed food is crucial for maintaining a healthy diet. While processed foods may offer convenience, they often come at the cost of nutritional quality and health. On the other hand, unprocessed foods provide essential nutrients and can support overall health.


Following a plant-based vegan diet offers incredible health benefits. But it’s important to prioritize unprocessed or minimally processed foods to significantly improve your nutrition and health. So the next time you find yourself reaching for a processed food, consider its unprocessed alternative. Your body will thank you for it.

Frequently Asked Questions

What's the big difference between processed and unprocessed foods that I should keep in mind?

The main difference is that processed foods have been altered from their natural state for safety or convenience. This can mean adding preservatives, artificial flavors, sugars, salt, etc. Unprocessed foods are in their “whole” form like fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins. They tend to have more intact nutrients!

If a food label says "organic" or "all-natural," does that mean it's unprocessed?

Not necessarily! Organic and natural foods can still be processed in some way, like canning vegetables or pressing oils. You still want to check the ingredients list – long ingredient lists or unfamiliar chemicals are signs a “natural” food may be more processed.

Are all processed foods bad and all unprocessed foods good?

Nope, it’s not that black and white! Some processed items like frozen vegetables are fine in moderation. Some unprocessed items like white sugar aren’t very nutritious. It’s best to limit highly processed foods with long ingredients lists but enjoy sensible amounts of minimally processed items.

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