‘Real Food’ seems to be a bit of a buzz word at the moment, whether it’s in a café slogan, a section in a supermarket or popping up in the news. One of our previous blogs discusses the benefits to health and quality of life associated with eating a real food diet (access it here). But what does a real food lifestyle mean and how can we live by it?
You might think the difference between processed food and real food is obvious but today’s food environment has made it increasingly more difficult to distinguish between the two. While it can be argued that most food has been processed to some extent (as food that has been packaged, frozen or canned have been processed), some foods are more artificially made than others. The difficulty in establishing what food is real makes it harder for us to eat healthily and live well. Real foods are those which are minimally processed or unprocessed, are as close to their natural state as possible, had little taken away or added and are often nutrient rich. Processed food, on the other hand, isn’t always as easy to identify. Dr. Robert Lustig defined processed food by seven food engineering criteria:
“it is mass produced, is consistent batch to batch, is consistent country to country, uses specialized ingredients from specialized companies, consists of pre-frozen macronutrients, stays emulsified, and has a long shelf life or freezer life”
There are various other food classifications which can help us identify processed food such as NOVA;
Group 1)Unprocessed or minimally processed foods – edible parts of plants, animals, fungi, algae, and water after separation from nature
Group 2)Processed culinary ingredients – directly obtained from Group 1 by processes such as pressing, refining, etc.
Group 3)Processed foods – simple products made by adding sugar, oil or Group 2 foods
Group 4)Ultra-processed food and drink products – industrial formulations typically with five or more ingredients
While the NOVA classification has been criticised as being too incomplete to form total dietary recommendations there are some components which can be used to identify the type of processed foods which should be avoided where possible. Ultimately, foods which are mass produced and industrially formulated, have been altered from their natural state and contain artificial or processed ingredients. Increased consumption of these products has occurred over the last few decades and have been associated with the growing rates of obesity, fatty liver, tooth decay, Type 2 diabetes, and other long-term conditions.
So how do we identify processed foods? There are lots of foods which are ultra-processed and easy to identify such as takeaways, sweets, and fizzy drinks and it is known that overconsumption of these has a negative impact on health. However, there are some processed foods that might not be so obvious, so here are a couple of things to look out for when choosing your food -
Processed food often comes in lots of packaging, whereas real food comes in little to none. Packaged food may also list a nutritional claim, a claim which suggests the food has particular beneficial nutritional property. ‘Low fat’ or ‘low sugar’ are examples of nutritional claims and they don’t necessarily mean a product is the best choice. Check the ingredients list to determine how processed a product is. If a food is not naturally low in these nutrients, then it has been manufactured to be so.
The ingredients list is probably the first thing to look at with packaged food as it can give you a good indication of how processed it is. The more ingredients, the more processed. An ultra-processed product is generally defined as having more than five ingredients and often has ingredients which you can’t even pronounce.
This easiest way to know your food is to cook from scratch, however, this isn’t always possible. Yet, knowing what ingredients are in the food you’re eating is a great start. Author Michael Pollan was quoted as saying “don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food”. Real food is often recognisable, such as fruit, vegetables, animal products (meat, milk, eggs) and should make up most of the food you eat. If you do not recognise what animal the meat you are eating comes from, it’s probably worth avoiding where possible.
There are lots of processed food out there that have been promoted as healthy, whether through clever marketing or dated dietary advice. It’s worth considering the processing methods that are used to convert whole food into a processed product. Breakfast cereal and vegetable oils are good examples of these; the extensive refining process used to create breakfast cereals is shown below -
This diagram shows the nutritious part of the grain being removed and preservatives, sugar and/or flavourings being added before being heated and dried to create the finished product. Food marketing also makes it difficult to identify real from processed food. Breakfast cereals are often marketed as a ‘whole food’ or ‘real’ food, implying that they are unprocessed. Many other products are also marketing themselves in this way – even confectionary and crisps! So be wary of clever food marketing strategies and before picking a product, have a think about the processing method it has gone through to get there.
So, here are some top tips for living a real food lifestyle:
- Try to find food that is as close to its natural state
- Look for food that comes in little or no packaging
- Short ingredients lists, try to choose products with less than five ingredients
- Be wary of food marketing
- Think about where your food comes from
- Cook your own!
It might not always be possible to avoid processed foods, but opting for ‘real’ foods more often can help improve your health and wellbeing! For more information on real food visit the Real Food Day website, read our blogs on the benefits of real food and the importance of nutritional quality and find infographics on our Facebook page.
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