The biggest difference between them is the number of ingredients and the degree of industrial processing. When it comes to foods, our evolution and struggle to survive made us very well adapted to what’s on offer in nature: a complete selection of nutrients, anti-nutrients, dietary fiber, and water, all in recyclable packaging. With food products, manufacturers are taking an educated guess based on what current science tells us. At least that’s what I’m hoping they do, because production of most new foods is not motivated by their positive impact on our health, but rather by profit and ability to induce repeated consumption.
This doesn’t mean that all man-made foods are inherently bad for us, it just highlights that we need to be extra careful when choosing anything other than wholesome produce.
If it comes in a box, bag, jar or a can, don’t eat it!
This is, of course, not to be taken literally. When you buy a box of fresh, whole fruit or meat from a local farmer sealed in airtight foil, you are doing great. But most of the time packaged food will contain many highly processed ingredients. If you find any form of sugar, flour, industrial seed oil or something better suited for a chemistry text book among the top items on the label, just walk away. It is surprising how many products fall into this category.
Sometimes, the difference might appear more subtle, especially when we use one name for two very different things. Salami and grass-fed beef are both meat, aren’t they? Fried veggie chips and fresh vegetables from the farmer’s market are still both vegetables, right? Low-fat, sweetened and pasteurized yogurt and raw, plain yogurt, what’s the difference? You see the pattern. Just read the label or lack thereof, and you will need no more explanation.
If it says healthy on the label, it probably isn’t
Another reason for avoiding packaged foods altogether is the marketing. Have you ever seen a desert called: Wheat-Sugar-Oil? No? Well, that’s what most of them are. But at least they don’t pretend to be healthy, unlike many other foods, and fortified ones especially. Added substances like omega-3 fatty acids are usually a result of popularity, and thus their potential to increase sales. Often we don’t know exactly how much of a given vitamin is safe to consume (e.g. folic acid), or it is not mandatory to disclose the added amount (e.g. probiotics). So you can only guess what the effects will be, if any. Just because a manufacturer added a trendy vitamin or used a healthy sounding name doesn’t make the food desirable. Unprocessed foods are always the safer choice, regardless of advertising.
Before you declare avoiding processed foods impossible, consider the 80/20 principle. If you are generally healthy, base your diet on real, whole foods like meat and fish, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and starchy plants like potatoes – that should make up about 80% of what you eat in a week. Then enjoy whatever else you like in the remaining 20%.