by Lisa Hugh MSHS RD LDN CLT
Popular diet terms like "clean eating," "whole foods," and "unprocessed foods" sometimes seem simple and straightforward but can also be a little confusing. Are these all the same? Which is better?
First, a Story.
A few years ago, I worked in a physician's office. This doctor was a specialist in treating HIV / AIDS and was one of the first doctors in the U.S. to specialize in this condition. He was involved in many of the clinical trials which led to life-saving medications. Working for him was truly a learning experience. One day, we had lunch provided by a pharmaceutical rep. The lady said something along the lines of "Our product is better than our competitors' product because it does not have such-and-such side effect." Seemed like good information. However, this was a red flag to the physician. Politely, but extremely boldly, he advised the rep not to characterize one medication as better than the other. Instead, as healthcare providers, we have to understand the features of the medication. Yes, it was a favorable feature that this medication did not have a specific side effect. However, a large group of patients could not take the medication for other reasons. And for them, the "competitors product" was clearly a better choice. To ignore such information would be a danger disservice to patients who needed the best information.
This lesson was an eye-opener for me. People frequently ask for my opinion on which diet, supplement, food, grocery store, company, or diet book is the best. The simple answer is "I don't know." The more in-depth answer is "It depends." It depends on what you need, what you want, and what you are willing & able to do. Instead of deciding which diet is "the best" let's look at some definitions and understand the features of these diets a little better.
Clean Eating vs. Whole Foods vs. Unprocessed Foods
Merriam-Webster defines Whole Foods as "a natural food and especially an unprocessed one."
"Whole Foods" also refers to the entire food - for example, a fresh orange is a whole food whereas orange juice is a processed product that does not contain all of the components of the whole food.
A more in-depth description was first used in 1946: Whole food was defined as "mature produce of field, orchard, or garden without subtraction, addition, or alteration grown from seed without chemical dressing, in fertile soil manured solely with animal and vegetable wastes, and composts therefrom, and ground, raw rock and without chemical manures, sprays, or insecticides," having the intent to connect suppliers and the growing public demand for such food.
Food processing turns unprocessed agricultural products (unprocessed foods) into edible food (rice is harvested and prepared to be sold to consumers). This is known as primary processing. Secondary processing is when edible foods are turned in to familiar foods (ie: rice is turned in to puffed rice cereal). Tertiary processing is associated with negative health consequences, excess added sugar, sodium and other ingredients (for example, puffed rice is made into sweetened cereal bars). Processed foods have gotten a bad reputation, but processed foods have a lot of beneficial features: convenience, food preservation, and food security. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not advocating a diet rich in overly processed foods.
Clean Eating generally means eating whole foods that are minimally processed. However, it can also have negative connotations.
Single Ingredient Foods / Single Ingredient Groceries
An ingredient is one part of a mixture. For groceries, this means that the item purchased contains only one ingredient.
A single ingredient food may be processed or unprocessed (A whole coconut would be minimally processed while dried coconut would be further processed). A single ingredient food may be whole or not (A whole coconut would be "whole" while coconut water isn't considered whole because it is made up of only part of the whole coconut.)
So, if a person is able to eat coconut, knowing that specific foods contain ONLY coconut may be a matter of safety & comfort. (For example, a bag of shredded coconut would be a safe food for somebody with nut allergies; but a bag of trail mix that contains nuts and coconut would not be a safe food.) Minimal food processing allows for wholesome food to be more convenient. Examples of single ingredient coconut foods include canned coconut milk, coconut water, and dried shredded coconut. These foods can be used in lots of ways: canned coconut milk can be blended in smoothies, cooked in rice & peas, and added to a curry sauce. Coconut water can be a simple beverage or blended with other fruit juices. Dried shredded coconut can be added to hot cereals, cold cereals, smoothie bowls, trail mix, or blended in to smoothies. Different formats of foods allow for flexibility in terms of nutrition as well. A person with dental problems might not tolerate dried coconut but could enjoy the liquid forms. A person on a fat-restricted diet may not tolerate coconut milk but may tolerate coconut water. A person on a fiber-restricted diet may not tolerate dried coconut but may tolerate coconut milk and coconut water.
Another example is white rice vs. brown rice. Brown rice is a whole food and is a single ingredient food. White rice is processed so that the outer portion of the rice is removed. So while it is not a whole food, it is a single ingredient food. A person who can eat rice has the option of having white rice and brown rice - both have nutrition benefits and each has a different flavor and cooking profiles.
To recap, Single Ingredient Groceries are a matter of safety and comfort, and help a diet to be convenient and flexible.
What are your favorite Single Ingredient Groceries? Let me know in the comments below.
Like what you read? Sign up for our email newsletter.
Written by Lisa Hugh MSHS RD LDN CLT - Registered Dietitian Nutritionist & Certified Leap Therapist (food sensitivity expert).
Do you follow a special diet for food sensitivities, food allergies, digestive disorders or other reasons?
Finding foods you can eat is tough, so I've put together a lot of resources to make life easier.
The foods featured here are Single Ingredient Groceries.
They contain ONE food ingredient. (Some contain salt which is usually considered "non reactive".)