Whole food is unprocessed and unadulterated, and comes to us straight from nature.  Processed foods on the other hand are foods that have been altered from their natural state.  There are various degrees of processing.  For example, peeling an apple is what we would consider minimally processed.  It becomes more processed if you then puree it, cook it, preserve it, add coloring, flavoring etc.  Coconut oil is made from coconut meat, which has been grated, squeezed to extract the coconut milk and gently heated to extract the oil.  All these are processes involved in getting the various forms of food from the raw materials.

Most of the foods we eat today tend to be processed in some way and the quality of our food depends on the type of processing that it has undergone.   In short it means that the more you  alter its original form, the more processed it becomes.  Other things that can affect the value of your food are the additives that you put in, in an effort to make the food super tasty and appealing – are they natural or the synthetic and often toxic chemicals?

Let’s start with understanding what processing does to your food.

Nutrients Are Lost Through Processing

The first thing that processing does to your food is to strip it off its precious nutrients.  Almost all supermarket foods are processed, this is obvious and not that difficult to notice, but unfortunately there are also processed food that are less obvious.   To help you to understand this, please refer to the write up on grains below.

Whole grain and refined grain

Grains are the seeds of grasses cultivated for food.  Common  examples of grains are rice, wheat, barley, millets and corn.  All types of grains are generally good sources of complex carbohydrates, fiber and some key vitamins and minerals.

All grains start life as whole grains and it contain 100% of the nutrients mother nature intended them to have.  The ‘whole grains’ are the entire seed (or kernel) of a plant.   This seed is made up of the bran, germ and endosperm and they are all protected by the husk from assaults by sunlight, water, pests and disease.  The bran and the germ are the most nutritious parts of the grain; they contain concentrated amounts of  fiber, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and phytonutrients unique to specific grain. The endosperm is primarily composed of carbohydrates, proteins and a small amount of the B vitamins.

What happens during the milling process? 

For whole grains or the unrefined grains only the husks are removed; the bran layers and germ are intact.  Refined grains on the other hands have been milled such that even the bran and germ layers are removed to give them a finer texture and extend their shelf life Refer to the figure below.   For example brown or unprocessed rice goes rancid very fast because the bran and the germ layer contain fats that can spoil.  These fats, once exposed to air by the refining process, are highly susceptible to oxidation.  The removal of these layers extends the shelf life of the product, but unfortunately it also removes the valuable nutrients The resulting white rice is simply a refined carbohydrate that is largely bereft of its original nutrients.

 

  1. Bran— the fibre rich outer layer that protects the seed and contains vitamins, minerals and oil (from the aerelion layer).
  2. Endosperm — the middle layer that contains carbohydrate as well as some protein
  3. Germ— some protein, phytonutrients, vitamin B and E, and healthy fats.

Note:  Different grains have different composition of nutrients within them.

 

The following table  gives an indication of how much nutrients are lost during the milling process1.

Grain Nutrient loss
Whole grain brown rice to processed rice Vit.K – 95%, Fiber – 63%, Thiamin (B1) – 83%, Niacin (B3) – 69, Riboflavin (B2) – 47%, Iron -46%, magnesium – 83%, Vit. B6 – 68%, Folate*-60%, potassium—48%, protein – 10%, all of the selenium
Whole grain wheat to refined wheat Vit. E – 92%, Vit.B6 – 89%, vit. K – 84%, magnesium – 84%, Manganese 83%, Fiber – 75%, Zinc – 73%, Potassium – 71%, Phosphorus – 70%, Copper 65%, calcium 56%, selenium – 45%, protein 22%, Riboflavin (B2)* – 76%, Niacin (B3) – 75%, Thiamin (B1) -76%, Iron – 67%, Folate  – 41%,

In some cases, synthetic vitamins and minerals are added to the foods to compensate avoid processed food for what was lost during processing.  These foods are often called ‘fortified’ or  ‘enriched’.

Enriched

is when some of the nutrients lost during milling processes are added back.  For example white rice are enriched with B1, B3 and iron.

‘Fortified’

is the practice of deliberately increasing the content of vitamins and minerals in a food, so as to improve its nutritive value.   For example wheat and maize flours  are fortified with iron, vitamin A, folic  acid, zinc and vitamin B12.

The ‘improvements’ on the food are hardly a replacement for the dozens of nutrients and uncounted phytonutrients lost to refining.

The bottom line is there are many nutrients found in whole foods that are no longer found in processed foods.   The more processed foods you eat, the less you will get of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and various trace nutrients.   Processed food tend to be lower in fiber too, a component of food that can slow down the absorption of carbohydrates, regulates the blood sugar level and help us feel more satisfied with fewer calories.

Note:  Nutrients are also lost when:

– raw sugar is converted to refined sugar

– unprocessed salt is converted to refined salt

– virgin or cold pressed oil such as olive, palm oil, flaxseed oil, grape seed oil are converted to refined oil.

 

Processed foods are addictive and may lead to Overconsumption

Ever wonder why you just can’t put that bag of chips down?  Why the super-palatable food of today is so difficult to resist?  Well, blame it on sugar, fat and salt.

Food manufacturers want you to buy their product, and to achieve this, many processed foods have been engineered to be attractive, sweet, salty, fatty and so incredibly “rewarding and addictive” to the brain and the taste buds.

A growing body of evidence has shown that industrial, processed, sugar, fat and salt-laden food is biologically addictive. From the cases reported in the Scientific Review paper on ‘Physical Craving and Food Addiction it was found that the brain mechanisms in people with food  addiction were similar to those in people with substance dependence, such as drug addicts2.    Intense sweetness – not just refined sugar, but also artificial sweeteners – surpasses cocaine as a reward in laboratory animals.

There is indeed a conscious effort by the food manufacturers to get you hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive to make. Processed foods over stimulate the production of “pleasure” neurotransmitter dopamine, which leads to excessive cravings.  For example, sugar stimulates the brain’s reward centers through the neurotransmitter dopamine exactly like certain addictive drugs.  Because of this your mind is not able to resist the refined salt, sugar and fat, so you continue eating “junk” foods in mass amounts, a vicious cycle which leads to obesity and other health  problems such as diabetes and cancer.

Our Recommendations

The best thing to do is to avoid processed food in the first place.  Other things that you can do is to learn to read the label — the shorter the ingredient list the better.  For example a packet of  frozen peas that you find in supermarket is acceptable if it is a single ingredient items (freezing can be a very good way to preserve the nutritional value, texture and flavor of many foods).   Always go for whole food with no or minimal processing — and no chemical additives or preservatives added.

An Example – Rice

For rice, it may be difficult for you to start consuming the unprocessed rice, it may cause ‘bloating feelings’ due to the higher fiber contain.  In this case, mix the unprocessed rice with white rice and slowly adjust the ratio between the processed and unprocessed rice.

Other tricks to use unprocessed rice are to

1.  Double the water used

2.  Pre-soak the rice for 2-4 hours – this will soften the rice.

To know how processed the food is, read the nutrition labels.  Remember that ingredients are listed in order by weight, not all sugar is added sugar, and trans fats are listed as 0 grams if the product has less than 0.5 grams per serving — eat more than one serving and you could be over the daily limit!

– Instant oats are the processed version of oats.  The unprocessed oats are those normally labelled as ‘rolled oat’ and ‘whole oats’.  Unprocessed oat can also cause discomfort in the stomach especially when you are not used to it.  Therefore, do the same thing that you do with unprocessed rice.  Gradually introduced it into your diet.