Whole vs Processed vs Refined Foods

Whole vs Processed vs Refined Foods
Heather Nicholds, C.H.N.

I get a lot of questions about the difference between whole, processed and refined foods, and whether certain foods like dried fruit or nut butters are still considered ‘whole’.

Let me say first that there are a lot of different definitions out there as to what the words ‘whole,’ ‘processed’ and ‘refined’ mean specifically when it comes to food.

The important thing to remember here is that no matter what words you use, you want to look for the foods that the most health-promoting, so that’s what I focus on in defining what these words mean to me.


Whole Foods: a food that hasn’t been altered from its natural state, and hasn’t had any nutrients removed. i.e. brown rice
*Note: I would also consider cooked brown rice to be a whole food, even though it could also be called processed after being cooked.

Processed Foods: a food that’s been changed through some form of processing (grinding, pureeing, cooking, etc), but hasn’t had any nutritional components removed. i.e. brown rice flour

Refined Foods: a food that has had parts removed, leaving it with less nutrients than when it was whole. i.e. white rice

Prepared/Processed Foods: an alternate definition of processed food is one that’s been commercially prepared, so I sometimes call them prepared foods to differentiate them from the first definition of processed. i.e. packaged rice dinner


Flours are made by grinding dry grains or legumes. That’s a form of processing, and white flours have had fiber removed so they would be refined.

I think whole grain flours are wonderful, and best if you buy them often so that they don’t go stale and lose nutrients. I usually avoid white/refined flours, since they’re pretty empty calories and can cause issues in digestion since they’re lacking fiber.

I personally don’t eat a lot of flour products, because I find for myself they don’t digest as well as if I cook a whole grain or bean. When you think about it, a flour is cooked in a lot less time and with a lot less water than if you cook the whole grain or bean.

The longer you cook a grain or bean, the easier it will be to digest, and it absorbs water so that it’s much less dense. That means when I chew whole grains and beans, my saliva gets in contact with the food more and is able to start digesting the carbohydrates better.

And on a really simple level, I just find I chew whole grains and beans more thoroughly than I do a piece of bread, so it doesn’t go to my stomach as a big lump.

I always get questions about why I don’t eat bread or sandwiches very often, so that’s why. But that does not mean that I think (unrefined) flours are unhealthy! I do eat bread and muffins and cookies sometimes – just not too often.

Dried Fruit

Fruit that’s been dried (like apricots, figs, raisins, cranberries, dates, etc) has gone through a process, so in my definitions I call them processed.

No nutrients have been removed, just water, so they’re more portable and they keep better than fresh fruit. I love having dried fruit on hand for snacks or to add to porridge or a meal for a bit of sweetness.

They’re also more concentrated, so they can cause some digestion issues if you don’t chew them properly. I find if I have dried fruit on an airplane, I often get gas from not having chewed them enough.

The only thing to watch with dried fruits is the use of sulfites for preserving them, oil to maintain moisture and added sugar or flavor. Dried apricots are an easy one to see because the natural ones are brown-dark orange, while the ones preserved with sulfites are bright orange.

I avoid fruits dried with those things when I can, although I don’t eat a large amount of dried fruit so I don’t stress too much if I can’t find ones without.

Nut/Seed Butters

Peanut butter is the most well-known nut butter, and the best kind is simply peanuts ground to a paste. Tahini is the other traditional one, which is ground sesame seeds. They’re now making butters with all kinds of nuts and seeds – almond, cashew, pumpkin, sunflower, macadamia.

This is a process, and usually nothing is removed from the nut or seed so they maintain their nutrients. Butters wind up being more dense than the original nut or seed, so you would need a smaller portion of nut butter to get the same nutrients and calories.

The important thing to watch for health-wise with nut/seed butters is that the typical peanut butters have added sugar, oil and salt. I always go for the natural kinds, which will list only the nut or seed as an ingredient.

These are the kind you have to stir since the natural oil of the nut/seed separates, but it’s really easy and when you keep the jar in the fridge I find that it stays combined so I only stir once when I first open the jar.

I occasionally still get the question: ‘is peanut butter vegan?’ Rest assured, although the word ‘butter’ is in the name, there are no milk products involved in nut or seed butters.

Nutella, however, is a different story – it uses milk in its chocolate-hazelnutness. Happily, there are brands making dairy-free chocolate nut butters. Just check the ingredient listing to be sure. Or make your own! I mix natural nut butter with cocoa powder and maple syrup, it’s fantastic.

Dried Herbs And Spices

Drying means they’re processed, but haven’t lost any significant portion of their nutrition and are surprisingly high in antioxidants and nutrients.

Fresh (whether herbs or things like garlic and ginger) are obviously fantastic, but dried are easier to store for longer time frames, and are easier to add a sprinkle to a dish on the fly.

Seriously, I was feeling like dried herbs and spices couldn’t be nearly as good as fresh until I watched this video by NutritionFacts.org:

Now I have no worries about dried ones being inadequate, and it pushes me to add a sprinkle of cinnamon or oregano or something to whatever I’m making.

Puffed Grains

A lot of cereals include refined sugars or flours, but puffed grains are just a whole grain (like wheat or rice) that have been popped kind of like popcorn.

They’re exposed to heat, so they’re processed, but they haven’t lost any nutritional component so they’re not refined. I like using puffed rice in things like my chocolate krinkles, or making snacks with rice cakes.

So I hope that helps clear things up!

What’s your take on whole vs. processed vs. refined foods? If I missed an example that you’d like to know my thoughts on, let me know below.


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