What is the difference between natural and processed foods?

Real foods are foods that have a single ingredient, unprocessed and unaltered foods made without any chemicals or additives. Whereas processed foods are foods that have had their nutritional composition changed in some way. Processed foods include foods that have been cooked, canned, frozen, or packaged. There is no FDA-approved definition of the term natural, except when it refers to meat or poultry.

For these products, natural refers to those that are minimally processed and contains no artificial additives. Practically all foods are processed in some way. So, saying that a food is processed doesn't always mean that it's not a healthy food option. Foods are processed for reasons of food safety or convenience, such as shelf life, or to make the product set faster.

Our milk is pasteurized, which means it's processed to keep it safe from bacteria, and that doesn't mean it's not a healthy food option. Processed foods are foods that have undergone substantial modifications, moving them away from their original form. This process removes nutrients from them, whitens them, combines chemicals and other unnatural additives. As a result, it looks, feels and tastes different from its natural form.

Overall, compared to their whole-food counterparts, most processed foods fall very short when it comes to nutrient density. As a result, Soup A would fall to the end of whole foods, Soup C would fall to the processed end and it would probably be best avoided, and Soup B falls somewhere in between. It's not the worst option, but it's better to leave it on the shelf in favor of Soup A, which represents a decent nutritional option. Processed foods generally don't need to be completely avoided for health reasons; incorporating some minimally processed foods may help people eat healthier overall.

Whole foods are considered “nutrient-dense,” meaning they contain a variety of nutrients, while highly processed foods are considered “empty calories.” They can save time when preparing meals, and some processed and fortified foods provide important nutrients that would not otherwise be available in a busy household or with a limited food budget. Whether or not you are deciding to include a highly processed food in your diet, it may be helpful to evaluate its nutritional content and its long-term effect on health. The nutrition label and the ingredient list can be useful tools for deciding when to include a processed food in the diet.

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