Refined Foods - Are They the Enemy?

What goes into making the food we eat can often take a lot of the goodness out. So, which refined foods and processed foods are best to avoid if you want to live a healthy life?

Almost all food is processed in some way before it is eaten. Simply peeling, cooking or combining ingredients in a recipe is putting it through a 'process'.

A little cooking and processing is okay, but heavily processed and refined foods are typically high in fat and calories and devoid of nutritional value and fibre. It's important to know what refined foods are, in order to avoid them and maximise your nutrient intake.

12WBT's dietitians encourage members to eat whole foods, which means those that are relatively untouched. Apples straight from the tree, or onions, beetroots or carrots straight from the ground, are all whole foods - they're a richly nutritious life force, a gift of nature.

But after a while they'll start to go rotten - and besides, you can't eat raw vegetables all the time. Many foods have to be cooked and/or preserved.

The Birth of Processed and Refined Foods

Food processing dates back to our earliest times and the gradual invention of fermentation, sun drying, preserving with salt and various types of cooking (such as roasting, smoking, steaming and oven baking).

The first explorers, soldiers and sailors relied on preserved ingredients. Before long people were trading foods and spices around the world, and cooking and keeping them became an art form.

Typical Processes

The downside to processing is that, once whole foods are tampered with, they begin to lose vitamins and nutrients.

The Victorian Government's Better Health Channel has highlighted the following processing techniques that change whole foods to a greater or lesser degree.

Fertilisers: High use of nitrogen fertilisers tends to reduce the vitamin C content in many fruit and vegetable crops, whether or not the fertiliser is organic.

Farm food: Mass-farmed chickens and fish are fed products that change their fat type and content, leaving the meat high in omega-6 fats.

Preparation of vegetables: Most nutrients, such as vitamins, tend to lie close to the skin surface, so excessive trimming and peeling can mean a reduction in a vegetable's nutritional value.

Milling: Grains such as wheat and rice are often ground to remove the fibrous husks.

The husks contain most of the plant's dietary fibre, B-group vitamins, phytochemicals and some minerals, which is why milled (or refined) flour is less beneficial than whole flour.

Refining: Many sugars are ground to the point where the particles are extremely fine and, because they require less digestion, enter the blood stream much more quickly than less processed sugars.

This can spike our blood sugar, and when our energy levels drop again, the body will crave more sugar. In contrast, the fibre in a piece of whole fruit means its sugar will enter the body much more slowly than refined sugar, avoiding that spike.

Dehydrating: Drying out foods, such as fruits, can reduce the amount of vitamin C.

If a dehydrated item is reconstituted, further nutrients leach out and are lost in the cooking water.

Blanching: Before a food is canned or frozen, it is usually heated very quickly with steam or water to destroy micro-organisms such as bacteria, but this process also destroys water-soluble vitamins.

Canning: Food is heated inside the can to kill any dangerous micro-organisms and extend its shelf life.

Some of the flavour and vitamins are lost but the can's contents stay mostly nutritious, without added preservatives.

Cooking methods: Grilling, roasting, steaming, stir-frying or microwaving generally preserve a greater amount of vitamins and other nutrients than boiling, as some vitamins dissolve in water.

Freezing: Nutrient value is retained when a food is frozen. Any nutrient losses are due to processing prior to freezing and cooking once the frozen item is thawed.

Pasteurisation: This involves heating liquids, such as milk and fruit juices, to destroy micro-organisms.

The nutrient value of milk is generally unaffected but juice can lose vitamin C.

High-pressure processing: This new method uses elevated pressures to kill micro-organisms.

As heat is not required, it impacts less on the vitamin content, flavour and colour of food and drink.

Modern Concepts in Refined Products

In the 20th century, what we ate began to morph from nature's whole food into new man-made forms.

The need to feed soldiers, astronauts and the "I want it now" consumer contributed to advances such as juice concentrates, spray drying, freeze drying and the introduction of artificial sweeteners, colouring agents and preservatives such as sodium benzoate, as well as the addition of more salt and refined sugar to many products.

Importantly, women joined the workforce in greater numbers and started spending less time in the garden and the kitchen.

Working wives and mothers began to rely upon frozen and refined products such as dried instant soups, reconstituted fruits and juices, and ready meals or "TV dinners".

Mass Production of Foods

Over the past 50 years we've witnessed such huge changes in what we eat, how it's processed and refined, additives, use of pesticides and the alteration of animal fats through intensive farming that most of our meals would be unrecognisable to our ancestors.

Convenience food has become a bigger and bigger part of our staple diets, and Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council has found that many of what it calls "extra foods" have become standard daily fare.

This is not good news for our consumption of fat and refined sugar.

"Energy-dense and nutrient-poor cereal-based foods (including cakes, biscuits, pies, pizza and some desserts), confectionery and sugar-sweetened drinks contributed almost 36 per cent of Australian adults' total energy intake and 41 per of their total fat intake each day," it says.

Refined and Processed Products Mean Convenience

Today, in the 21st century, we're absolutely bombarded by processed and refined, convenience products wherever we turn. The health dangers are many. For example:

  • Experts suggest that most people consuming Western diets eat far too much omega-6 fats (from the rise in consumption of refined vegetable oils, for example) and not enough omega-3 fats (from foods such as fish, flaxseeds and walnuts).

    Researchers at Ohio University found a link between the high consumption of omega-6 fats and depression, heart disease, arthritis and type-2 diabetes.

  • "High levels of refined sugar and fat (often saturated fat) in processed foods are not helping us in the fight against lifestyle diseases such as type-2 diabetes, obesity and some cancers," adds 12WBT dietitian Georgie Moore.

  • Sugars and fats can affect a child's intellectual development, a recent UK study found.

    The study of 14,000 children, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, found that IQ scores decreased the more a young child's diet was based on fats and refined sugars, while the scores increased for children who ate plenty of fruit and vegetables.

  • "Often processed and refined foods contain less fibre but more energy than whole foods, and unfortunately Aussies are only eating about a third of the fibre they need, yet way too much energy," says Georgie.

  • "Processed and refined foods also tend to contain high amounts of salt, or sodium, which is seriously impacting on our heart health," she adds.

    The average Australian consumes about eight or nine times more sodium than they need, with 75 per cent of the salt in most people's intake coming from processed and refined products.

Watch for Processed and Refined Ingredients

It's up to us to empower ourselves when it comes to eating processed and refined foods. This means we have to learn to read nutritional-value labels.

  • Look for low-salt products with no more than 120mg of sodium per 100g
  • Avoid refined grains and look for wholegrain bread and pasta instead
  • Avoid drinking processed fruit juice in favour of eating whole, fresh fruit
  • Look for products that are low in added sugar (refined or otherwise), syrup and honey
  • Avoid foods and oils that are high in saturated fats and instead choose unsaturated fats found in seafood, nuts, seeds, avocado, olives and other plant-based oils

For more ideas on healthy eating see our articles on healthy eating habits and healthy nutrition.

Better-Made Foods

One upside is that with more people becoming health conscious and wanting to make healthy choices, some processed and refined products are becoming higher in nutritional value.

"Manufacturers and fast food outlets are certainly listening to consumer demands and making changes to improve the nutritional content of their products and menus," says Georgie.

"Unilever has made a huge effort to reduce the sodium in its processed foods, and McDonald's has made a similar effort to cut the fat, sodium and sugar in its menu options.

Products are also becoming more fortified - for example, bread made from refined flour must be fortified with folate, and any salt used in bread making must be iodised, to alleviate iodine deficiency."

But products made with refined ingredients, such as white bread, are still less nutritious than wholemeal or wholegrain varieties.

Even if the bread has been artificially fortified with some of the nutrients that were lost after milling, it's impossible to replace everything that is taken out, especially the phytochemicals (the compounds that occur naturally in plants, such as antioxidants).

Careful Processes

"Whole and less processed or refined foods are certainly a better option," says Georgie. "However, you can eat fewer processed and refined items without having to spend copious amounts of time in the kitchen."

Careful cooking and storage will help retain the nutrients in your food if you follow these tips:

  • Use fresh ingredients whenever possible
  • Keep vegetables in the crisper compartment of your fridge
  • Wash or scrub vegetables rather than peeling them
  • Use the outer leaves of vegetables like cabbage or lettuce, unless they are wilted or unpalatable
  • Cook foods quickly
  • Store food properly, keeping it cold and sealed in airtight containers

Limit These Refined and Processed Foods

Here's Georgie's list of items to avoid:

1. Packaged nuts and muesli bars
"Nuts are a great snack if eaten in appropriate portions, but the moment they end up in a muesli bar they're just bad news.

"Muesli bars, nut bars and 'health' bars are generally chock-full of refined sugar to hold the contents together, as well as added fat to magnify the flavours. Just go for raw, unsalted nuts."

2. Soft drinks, energy drinks, smoothies and juices
"These are all incredibly high in energy. Soft drinks are high in refined sugar, while some smoothies and juices can contain as much energy as a hamburger!

"Research shows that the body doesn't recognise the energy we drink when compared to the energy we eat, so it doesn't feel full when we've had enough."

3. Veggie chips
"These are often organic, but however you look at them they're still just vegetables that have been deep-fried - just like potato crisps!

"They're high in fat and energy, mostly low in fibre and have very few nutrients."

4. Packaged soups
"Soups are often incredibly high in salt. Making your own soup will only take 30 minutes and is a great way to use up leftovers.

"Soups also tend to freeze really well, so make them in bulk and then freeze in individual portions - that's home processing at its best!"

5. Cereals aimed at kids
Generally speaking, these are high in refined sugar and salt. The claimed benefits, such as being high in protein or fibre, are all due to additives put in during the manufacturing process to enhance or fortify the food's nutritional value and won't meet a child's nutritional requirements.

Better options are wheat biscuits (such as Weet-Bix), oats or bran-based cereals.

Grate an apple over your oats to add some sweetness and flavour, and even a small teaspoon of brown sugar won't hurt - you'll still be having a lot less refined sugar than the amount contained in many of the well-known cereal brands.