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A Definition of What Exactly Are “Whole Foods”

In the nutrition industry, we have to be mindful of the words that we use and how they are applied to day-to-day contact. Oftentimes terms we use are not obvious to “normal people”. Today we are going to talk in plain English about a definition of what EXACTLY are whole foods.

A Definition of What Exactly Are "Whole Foods"Sometimes, the concept of healthy nutrition is a lot like my college experience in freshman psychology and sociology classes: everybody and his dog seems to have a theory. This could not be truer in the diet industry.

Reading diet book after diet book, it became very obvious that most diet books are little more than one person’s journal of how they fixed themselves. The problem comes in the habit to bill that one person’s solution as a silver bullet for the vast majority. It sells because, with that promise, people are captured by the hope that they too could experience true joy and self-acceptance if only they can follow ‘this’ meal plan for a month or two. Diets do not work because they do not typically reflect real life – Your Life!

The basis of my practice and preaching revolves around whole foods, but a friend recently pointed out to me that she did not really understand what defines whole food.

A definition of whole foods

Whole foods are foods that are unprocessed and unrefined, or processed and refined as little as possible before being consumed. Whole foods typically do not contain added ingredients, such as sugar, salt, or fat.

That might clear up some confusion, but we go a little farther here with examples. Of course, all raw fruits and vegetables are whole foods. Since most of us are not following a raw-foods diet, lets look as some other common foods. Take potatoes for starters. A baked potato is closer to its original form as it was uprooted on the farm than a potato chip. A kettle chip is simply sliced and dropped into a deep fat fryer, and possibly coated with various flavors. A baked potato would be considered a whole food: a potato chip would not.

Things can get a little gray from here, as many of the foods that we do not consider as junk-foods may still not be considered as whole foods. Milk is a perfect example. Pasteurization and homogenization strip milk of nutrients and enzymes that are normally contained in raw milk. Add to that the practice of reducing fats, fortifying with vitamins and mineral , and in some cases, adding artificial flavors such as strawberry and it becomes more clear that the milk you get in the grocery (unless you live in California) is no longer a whole food. It does not matter if you use that milk to make fermented foods such as yogurt or kefir – it is no longer a whole food. Raw milk cheese would be a different story.

Whole food does not imply organic, kosher, or gluten-free. Those are completely separate and distinct classifications that have their own definitions. Whole foods can be from plant sources or animal sources.

Whole Foods Not Whole Foods
Steel cut Oats All purpose flour
T-bone steak Chicken-fried steak
Spaghetti squash Egg noodles
Hard boiled eggs Egg-white omelet
Dry-roasted nuts Whey protein powder
Sun-dried raisins Sweetened, dried cranberries
Sea salt Table salt
Bone broth Frosted Mini-Wheats

Some of this is obvious, but others are not so. If you have questions about something in your kitchen, start by looking at the ingredients label and measure it against our definition above. If you still have
questions, ASK ME!

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Comments

  1. How about breakfast cereal. Would you consider Cherrios whole food? Any examples of breakfast cereal that qualify would be very helpful. Thanks.

    Bill

  2. FitNut says:

    @ Bill

    “This article really raises a few questions about hidden glutens. The author states: The following terms found in food labels may mean that there is gluten in the product.
    -Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein (HVP), unless made from soy or corn
    -Flour or Cereal products, unless made with pure rice flour, corn flour, potato flour or soy flour
    -Vegetable Protein, unless made from soy or corn
    -Malt or Malt Flavoring, unless derived from corn
    -Modified Starch or Modified Food Starch, unless arrowroot, corn, potato, tapioca, waxy maize or maize is used
    -Vegetable Gum, unless made from carob bean, locust bean, cellulose, guar, gum arabic, gum aracia, gum tragacanth, xantham or vegetable starch
    -Soy Sauce or Soy Sauce Solids, unless you know they do not contain wheat
    Any of the following words on food labels often mean that a grain containing gluten has been used.
    -Stabilizer
    -Starch
    -Flavoring
    -Emulsifier
    -Hydrolyzed
    -Plant Protein”

  3. What about soy sauce, miso soup, teriyaki at sushi restaurant? Whole foods?

    • Hey Kim, soy and teriyaki are typically processed sauces with plenty of added sugar and salt in addition to other processing agents — hence, not really a whole food. Miso soup on the other hand can be a different story. Fermented foods take whole foods to a new level with increased nutrients and nutrient bio-availability. Of course this only applies with the miso soup is made from scratch with wholesome ingredients.

  4. Interesting that Brazil is way ahead of us in labeling gluten free products…..

  5. Corn grits are whole food or is processed? Thanks.
    Bio

    • Depending on how literally you want to take the issue. If you are subsisting on fast foods, than absolutely, I would consider corn grits a ‘whole food’. If you are on a relatively clean diet and still sick, I might pull it out. But on the whole, Corn Grits are reasonably ‘whole’.

  6. I’m trying to cut out processed foods(including canned foods bc of health risk from the container)–is this essentially what a whole foods diet is?

    Are beans and rice considered whole foods even though they have to be cooked? What is a good list of basic foods when eating the whole foods way?

    • Cooking doesn’t necessarily negate a whole food from being a whole food. In some cases, like broccoli and kale, cooking makes the nutrients more available to your body. I think a good rule of thumb for what qualifies as a whole food is anything you can either eat raw (like an apple, lettuce, carrots, sashimi,etc.) or have to spend time cooking to make a dish, like roasted vegetables, Chicken soup, and a million other options. Be sure to check out my definition of whole foods here in this blog site.

  7. I have a question concerning homemade bread. I mill hard white spring wheat berries, add yeast, a little vital gluten, honey, water, sea salt and extra virgin olive oil. Yummy bread but could it be considered whole food? I am guessing not. Our sons says a food is no longer considered whole if you change it in any way, i.e., grind, bake, etc. Also, how about fresh ground almonds and sea salt–our almond butter to put on our bread. But is it whole food? THanks!!

  8. Hi Sherrie…When we start looking at foods composed of a list of ingredients, the term “whole foods” takes on a slightly different meaning. What I look for in a bread is the quality of those ingredients. I differ with your son when he says that a food is no longer consider whole if you change it in any way. I think beating a whole egg does not make it any less whole. Whereas converting it to something like an egg-white omelet is not whole. We could split hairs and argue that anything that is cooked or processed in any way — because it destroys some of the nutrients, makes it less whole, but then again, I can argue that fermented foods have a higher nutrient content than their non-fermented counterparts. We could bring up the debate about bio-availability and argue that beans and nuts that are not soaked are difficult to digest and those nutrients are largely unavailable in their natural state. Same for all the cruciferous veggies.

    Anyway, back to bread.

    The thing I look for in bread is simple ingredients that involve whole grain flours. Grinding your flour from the whole grain results in a whole grain flower. Yeast is a whole food. Sea Salt is a whole food.Olive Oil is a whole food. Now if I can pull out some of my basic math, I’d say that

    whole food + whole food + whole food = Whole Food!!

    I would love to post your recipe for others to enjoy if you feel so inclined to share. Keep up the good work!!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Here is an brief article explaining with a bit more detail what whole foods are (and aren’t) and giving a number of examples. Since the milk example is rather pertinent to our farm, I’ll reprint that here: Pasteurization and homogenization strip milk of nutrients and enzymes that are normally contained in raw milk. Add to that the practice of reducing fats, fortifying with vitamins and mineral , and in some cases, adding artificial flavors such as strawberry and it becomes more clear that the milk you get in the grocery…is no longer a whole food. It does not matter if you use that milk to make fermented foods such as yogurt or kefir – it is no longer a whole food. Raw milk cheese would be a different story. [...]

  2. [...] A Definition of What Exactly Are “Whole Foods” Defining Whole Foods, Redefining Healthy Eating Starting a Whole Foods Diet: 3 Simple Steps [...]

  3. [...] Whole Foods: “Whole foods are foods that are unprocessed and unrefined, or processed and refined as little as possible before being consumed. Whole foods typically do not contain added ingredients, such as sugar, salt, or fat.” [...]

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