Ask a Nutritionist: Is Processed Food Always Bad for You?

Is whole food better than processed food? The answer might surprise you... 

Hi Dan. I know that, for example, nuggets aren’t as nutritious as broccoli. But is whole food always better for me than processed food?
– Peter, Boston

This question seems like a no-brainer, but as with most things to do with nutrition, it’s not that simple. There are no agreed-upon definitions for whole or processed foods.

However, the first definitions I find on Google are: “food that has been processed or refined as little as possible and is free from additives or other artificial substances”[1] and “any food that has been altered in some way during preparation”[2].

What this actually means to most people though is: processed food is junk food that is bad for health and whole foods are raw ingredients like fruits and vegetables. But – and it’s a big but – this is such a small percentage of processed foods (ignoring the fact there’s no universally accepted definition for ‘junk’ food either).

Tinned beans are processed, so is tomato passata, and so are frozen ready meals. These foods are often cheaper than their whole food counterparts, allowing people access to affordable nutritious foods; if people have mobility issues or are elderly they reduce the barrier to preparing these foods; so does the speed in which they are ready. They also have a longer shelf-life, so food waste is reduced. If this all sounds familiar, it should – Huel was designed to tick all of these boxes.

In fact, processed foods can even be more nutritious than certain whole foods. For example, frozen foods are often frozen minutes after they are harvested, essentially freezing their nutritional value at that point in time. Another illustration is tomato paste, where the phytonutrients are better absorbed than from raw tomatoes[3]. You can even see this in front of your eyes: cook down spinach leaves and you have the same nutritious food in a much smaller volume, making them easier – and tastier – to eat.

What I’m trying to say is that the automatic assumption is whole foods are better, but “better” is rarely defined. Better how? Better for who, what and when? Rather than jumping straight for a black and white view, have a think about those questions, you may be surprised by the answer.


  3. Gärtner C, et al. Lycopene is more bioavailable from tomato paste than from fresh tomatoes. Am J Clin Nutr. 1997; 66(1):116-22.

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