Natural? Processed? What does it all mean? In Search of the Ideal Human Diet.


I am a believer in eating whole, fresh, organically grown plant-foods. But in this world where food can come from any part of the globe and labels on food can suggest all kinds of characteristics (organic, low fat, no fat, low sodium, low carb, natural, etc.) knowing what’s healthy can be really confusing. Add on top of that, information that is put out in conference presentations and blogs by people who are respected when it comes to the best knowledge in nutrition. Some information contradicts other information and we can start to feel panicky. It can be so overwhelming, some just give up, and eat whatever seems appealing in the moment.

I follow a lot of nutrition experts. I have my own biases of course, my own favorite experts, and those who make me roll my eyes in disbelief. There are a few things that are certain. We simply do not know what the ideal diet is for humans, in order to achieve maximum longevity and wellness. We do know that our diets need plant foods, and lots of them. Yes, we are capable of consuming the flesh and bodily fluids of other animals. Yet we know that eating too many animal products dramatically increases the risk of chronic disease. In general, people can do very well on a small amount of animal food or with none at all, as long as the bulk of the diet consists of whole or minimally processed fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. I personally prefer and promote the latter, a vegan diet, not only for health, but for ethical and environmental reasons as well.

Now that more people are focusing on plant foods we are hearing about the wide range of diets available with different experts stating that their diet is best. What’s a wellness-craving human to do?

If you decide to be vegan, is there an ideal vegan diet? You can choose the macrobiotic vegan diet, based on primarily cooked foods of whole grains, beans, seaweed, miso soup, tofu and tempeh. Dr. John McDougall promotes a starch-based vegan diet. Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s Eat To Live diet focuses on leafy greens and other nutrient dense foods. Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s diet is very low in fat, and oils are to be avoided. There are the raw food enthusiasts and even in this community there is no one clear direction. The Anne Wigmore Institute stresses the important of sprouts, Rejuvelac and wheat juice. The Gerson Institute will tell you to stay away from sprouts and stress the importance of juicing. The fruitarians will tell you to only eat what naturally falls to the ground. Some popular raw foodists, like Juliano, Cherie Soria and Ani Phyo are happily creating new recipes and foods all the time, using blenders, food processors and dehydrators. And does your food really have to be organic? Or locally grown?

Now let’s add in the discussion, the words natural and processed. What do these things mean? When you see “natural” on a food label, it means absolutely nothing. There are no laws that regulate the use of this word. And studies have shown that some people will buy foods that say “natural” because they think it means something – that’s why you see the word on product labels.

Lots of people talk about avoiding processed foods. What comes to mind for most people are foods made from white flour and sugar, potato chips, candy or foods from fast food restaurants. Once a food is harvested, anything that is done to it before it is consumed is processing. Cooking, blending, juicing, dehydrating, milling, irradiating, pasteurizing, and freezing are all examples of processing. Unless you are living on fresh berries and green leaves, most of us eat a diet of processed food. Whether food is minimally processed or highly processed, it’s the degree of processing that’s important.

Ideally, we eat should be a mix of whole, raw and minimally processed foods. Stove top cooking vegetables in water for soup or for steaming; blending fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds using food processors or blenders; buying frozen fruits and vegetables which have been frozen quickly after being harvested; dehydrating fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds at low temperatures; and juice extraction of fruits and vegetables are all examples of minimal processing. Each of these actions alters the food. Cooking can destroy some nutrients as well as making others more absorbable. Dehydrating can make food portable without the need for refrigeration, while concentrating flavors and making some foods more fun to eat. At the same time dehydrating takes the water out of foods, water that we need to thrive, as well as making us feel full, which helps us from eating too many calories. Blending can help break down cell walls. This can make some nutrients more easily absorbed, like with dark green leafy vegetables for example. But some nutritionists will tell you that for diabetics or those trying to lose weight, smoothies might not be the best choice because the sugar will be absorbed too quickly and the fiber is less effective. Juicing, especially of dark green vegetables enables us to eat more of these foods than if we ate them with the fiber. While fiber is important, (and we get plenty from eating plant foods) juicing greens can provide us with more nutrients. Juicing greens with some sweet foods, like fruits or starchy vegetables like carrots can make the bitter green drink more palatable while adding additional nutrition. However fruits and starchy vegetables when juiced, can give us a lot of sugar.

More often than not the more foods are processed the unhealthier they become. Here are a couple of simple examples. Whole fruits are excellent. Blended fruits, dried fruits and juiced fruits do not fill us up as quickly, so we might eat more in these forms and get more sugar than desired. We typically eat grains in some kind of processed form. Whole grains, like brown rice, millet and quinoa are minimally processed when cooked with water until soft. When milled into flour, grains lose fiber and nutrients, the sugars and starches are absorbed much more quickly. Minimally processed soy foods, like tofu, tempeh, soy milk, edamame and miso can be important components of a healthy diet. Highly processed soy foods, like isolated soy protein or soy protein isolate that are found in many of the meat analogs, veggie burgers, veggie deli meats are not as healthy. Raw nuts and seeds are superior to those that have been dry roasted, dry roasted nuts and seeds are better than having been salted and cooked in oil. However, flax seeds which are so nutritious and loaded with omega 3 fatty acids, must be ground before eating. If you ate the seeds whole they would most likely leave your body the way they entered, intact and undigested! Here is an example of where minimally processing is beneficial.

Highly processed foods may contain many ingredients that are not health promoting and may actually increase the risk of chronic disease. Many of these ingredients are added to make food more flavorful or appear and taste fresh; increase shelf life; act as a filler or a replacement for a higher-priced quality item, to reduce cost. Preservatives, artificial color, additives and sweeteners, hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, sugar and salt are among the long list of ingredients we do not need and should not want in our food.

Organic plant foods are superior to the industrial (sometime called “conventional”) counterparts in part because the “processing” of industrial foods occurs at the seed level, a sort of processing during the planting stage. Genetically modified plants have been altered at the DNA level, to resist toxic herbicides sprayed on them, to manufacture their own pesticides or to become resistant to viruses. Herbicides and pesticides are used to kill viruses and insects that destroy the crops. Petrochemical fertilizers provide select nutrients to the soil that allow plants to appear strong while polluting water and streams, along with the herbicides and pesticides, killing much of the wildlife in its way. Organic farming, unfortunately, does not mean one type of farming. It does mean that no herbicides or pesticides will be used. The USDA has their list of regulations to conform to for food to be labeled organic. Many of the giant agribusinesses are aware of the growth in the organic market and want a piece of it. While this can be a good thing, it is not unlikely that they will cut as many corners as possible to meet the organic certification requirements while maximizing profits. There are farmers who grow crops with a higher standard than USDA certified organic, some are certified and some, due to costs and logistics, are not. These farmers use the land more sustainably, rotating crops and resting fields for a season in order to keep the soil alive and healthy. Some use veganic techniques, not using animal manure for fertilizer or other animal products.

Ideally, our produce should not only be organic but be locally sourced and consumed just after it is harvest. This is near impossible in today’s world unless you are growing your own food. We do the best we can, buying from farmer’s markets, from CSA’s (community supported agriculture) and other quality distributors we trust when possible.

I eat a vegan diet of organic, minimally processed foods. I have a freshly extracted green juice every day made from kale or other dark green vegetables along with other ingredients such as lemon, ginger, celery, cucumber. I eat a wide variety of foods, including big salads, blended salads, cooked greens, soups, stir fry dishes, beans, oatmeal, baked goods. I use a simple blender and a food processor regularly. I enjoy the occasional treats, cakes, cookies, pies, made with minimally processed, organic ingredients. I sprout a variety of beans and seeds and grow what I can on my small terrace in New York City. I believe we can all thrive on plant foods. Some people that are challenged with weight gain may need to eat less grains and more beans and greens. Some who are extremely health-challenged may do best eating as many dark green vegetables as they can, raw, steamed, blended and juiced, along with mushrooms, onions and berries to super-charge the immune system. Your caloric needs may differ based on your size, age, activities and lifestyle. And plant foods fill those needs best.

At Responsible Eating And Living, we try to be a voice of reason, helping you sort through the overwhelming abundance of information regarding health and wellness. With recipes, podcasts, videos and articles, we are here for you, so that we can all make this world a better place.

  7 comments for “Natural? Processed? What does it all mean? In Search of the Ideal Human Diet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *