Food is fuel for our bodies, and the quality of the fuel you consume matters! In recent years, there has been a growing movement back towards eating minimally processed whole foods as a way to optimise nutrition, reduce the long-term risk of chronic lifestyle related diseases and simply feel our best each day!
In a world where ultra-processed foods dominate the supermarket shelves, at Stone Age Staples we believe in going back to the basics and offering a range of simple, minimally processed, and whole food focused products. In this article, we'll explore why consuming whole or minimally processed foods matters more than ever! We will define key terms, delve into the history of ultra-processed foods, discuss the benefits of incorporating more whole or minimally processed food into our diet, and provide practical tips on how you can add more minimally processed whole-foods to your plates!
Ok, let’s start with some definitions.
What is the difference between whole foods, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods and ultra-processed foods?
Whole foods: are foods in their natural state. They are unrefined and unprocessed, or processed as little as possible before being consumed. Examples of whole foods include fresh fruits and vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds & legumes.
Processed culinary ingredients: these are ingredients that have been extracted from whole foods and are used in cooking to add flavour, texture, or other desirable characteristics. Examples include oils, butter, sugar, salt, and vinegar.
Processed foods: are foods that have been altered in some way before being consumed. This can include simple processes like cutting, washing, or packaging, or more complex processes like pasteurisation, cooking or fermentation. Examples of processed foods include bread made from refined flour, frozen fruits, canned vegetables, cheese, yoghurt & nut butters.
Ultra-processed foods: are foods that are heavily processed, often with artificial ingredients and additives. They are typically high in calories, sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats. These foods are designed to be convenient and have a long shelf-life, making them popular choices for many people with busy lifestyles looking for convenience. Examples of ultra-processed foods include fast food, sugary breakfast cereals, packaged snacks, soft drinks, and most processed meats.
So, what’s the story with ultra-processed foods?
Ultra-processed foods emerged in the mid-20th century as a result of new food production and processing technologies, combined with shifts in consumer demand and emerging dietary patterns. At first, this was a positive development helping to transform the food landscape. Canned fruit and vegetables became available all year around, pasturisation minimised bacterial outbreaks from milk, and preservatives extended shelf-life. All of this meant safe food became available essentially anytime, anywhere and was relatively cheap.
Ok… sounds pretty good to me, so what happened?
Whilst the intentions of processed & ultra-processed foods may have started off well, the industrialisation of food production allowed for the creation of new types of food products that were cheaper, longer-lasting, and more convenient than traditionally whole or minimally processed foods. Food companies then used these new techniques to develop and market new ultra-processed products, including snack foods, breakfast cereals, frozen meals, and sweetened beverages to the masses. These products were cheaper to product and typically had long shelf-lives.
Right, so what are the issues with today's ultra-processed foods?
One of the main issues with ultra-processed foods is that they are often stripped of their natural nutrients during processing. For example, whole grains like brown rice and quinoa are often refined to create white rice and white flour, which removes the nutrient-rich germ and bran layers. This process removes fibre, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, leaving a nutrient-depleted product.
Additionally, processing can also add unhealthy ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, and artificial additives, further reducing the nutritional quality of the food.
Another disadvantage of ultra-processed foods is that they are often high in calories, sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats. For example, a single serving of some breakfast cereals can contain as much sugar as a chocolate bar. Excess sugar and fat consumption can lead to insulin resistance, inflammation, and other chronic diseases, contributing to weight gain, diabetes and other health problems.
Furthermore, ultra-processed foods are often designed to be addictive, which can lead to overconsumption and a lack of control over food choices. For example, many fast food chains use a combination of sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats to create meals that are almost irresistible to our taste buds. This can lead to a cycle of overconsumption and an unhealthy relationship with food.
And last but certainly not least, they are also often marketed in an appealing way to children! As a parent with a young child, this is something our family is hyper aware of.
Hmmm… doesn’t sound great - so how big is this problem?
Today, ultra-processed foods are a ubiquitous part of the global food system, with various studies showing supermarkets containing anywhere from 40%-70% of ultra-processed products on their shelves. Of major concern, there have been many studies showing that we are consuming a massive portion of our daily energy from these unhealthy ultra-processed food sources.
A Deakin University Study from their Food & Mood Centre showed that almost 50% of Australian dietary energy comes from ultra-processed foods, with the major culprits being:
- Highly refined mass-produced breads, including white bread with many unrecognisable ingredients
- Frozen and shelf-stable ready-to-eat meals, including frozen pasta, pies and nuggets
- Fast food dishes, including hamburgers, pizza and French fries from fast food outlets.
Another major issue of concern is when you look at consumption by socio-economic status in Australia. A recently published study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity looked at grocery purchasing from a nationally representative sample of Australian households and found thatultra-processed foods consistently made up the majority of energy purchased over five years from 2015–2019, with purchases of ultra-processed foods greater for the lowest SES households. This is obviously very concerning!
Ok, so ultra-processed food sounds bad, what are some benefits to eating whole or minimally processed food?
In contrast, eating a whole food minimally processed diet brings about numerous benefits, including but not limited to the following:
Improved Nutritional Intake: Whole foods are packed with essential nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which are vital for overall health and well-being. By consuming these foods in their natural state, you maximise your nutrient intake and benefit from their synergistic effects. Examples of whole foods include fruits like apples, oranges, and berries; vegetables like spinach, broccoli, and carrots; whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, and oats; legumes like lentils, chickpeas, and black beans; nuts and seeds like almonds, hazelnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds.
Reduced Risk of Chronic Diseases: A whole food minimally processed diet has been linked to a lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Whole foods are generally low in unhealthy fats, added sugars, and sodium, which are commonly found in heavily processed foods and contribute to these health conditions. Examples of whole foods that support disease prevention include seeds such as chia & flaxseed which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids; leafy greens like kale and spinach, packed with antioxidants; and legumes such as lentils and beans, which are high in fibre and plant-based protein.
Better Fullness and Weight Management:whole foods are more filling and satisfying due to their higher fibre and nutrient content. They promote better satiety by adding bulk to meals, taking longer to digest, and providing a lower energy density. The fibre in whole foods helps control appetite and prevents overeating. Nutrient-dense whole foods also reduce cravings for unhealthy processed foods. Whole foods encourage slower eating, allowing time for feelings of fullness to register and promoting portion control. By choosing whole foods, you can reduce the intake of added sugars and processed ingredients that can disrupt hunger regulation.
Ok, so I am ready to add some more whole-foods to my plate. Do you have any tips?
Focus onfruits and vegetables: Make sure to include a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables in your diet. Aim to fill at least half of your plate with them at every meal. We love going for something like Sweet Potato Mexican Jacket Potatoes for dinner as a way to add a heap of veggies to our plate!
Choosewhole grains: Swap out refined grains for whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa, spelt and whole wheat bread. The team at Stone Age Staples loves Italian food, so we opt for a whole grain pasta such as Girolomoni Organic Spelt Pasta, try it with our super simple Spaghetti Alla Napoletana.
Experiment withlegumes: Legumes, such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas, are great sources of plant-based protein and fibre. Try adding them to salads, soups, stews or even burger patties. Our go-to Plant-Based Burger Patties are absolutely loaded with chickpeas, plus other healthy goodness.
Snack onnuts and seeds: Nuts and seeds are nutrient-dense snacks that can help keep you feeling full and satisfied. Try adding them to your porridge, yoghurt, or salads. Check out the Stone Age Gluten Free Original Bites if you are looking for a healthy snack that is loaded with Almonds, Flaxseeds & Chia seeds!
Incorporatehealthy fats: Healthy fats, such as avocados & olive oil can help improve heart health and provide essential nutrients. The Stone Age Staples Gluten Free Original Loaf is the perfect combo with some smashed avo! This is our one of our go-to lunch options!
Make your ownsauces and dressings: Many store-bought sauces and dressings are loaded with added sugars and preservatives. Make your own using simple, whole-food ingredients. Here is a delicious Coconut Peanut Butter Dressing for you to try!
Trynew recipes: Experiment with new recipes that feature whole foods. This can help you discover new ingredients and flavours that you may not have tried before. If you are looking for a new super salad that is absolutely loaded with whole foods including nuts, seeds, legumes and general deliciousness, check out thisSuper Protein Salad.
Shop theperimeter of the grocery store: Most processed foods are located in the centre aisles of the grocery store. Stick to the perimeter, where you'll find fresh produce & other whole foods.
Prepare yourown meals: Cooking your own meals at home allows you to control the ingredients and avoid added sugars and preservatives. We always make sure to cook extra for dinner to give us some healthy lunch leftovers during the week! These Mexican Bean Wraps are some of our favourites for next day lunch leftovers!
Keephealthy snacks on hand: Having healthy snacks on hand, such as cut-up vegetables, fruit, nuts, or healthy cracker can help you avoid reaching for processed snacks when hunger strikes. Stone Age Fruit Bites are the perfect healthy snack to have on hand!
To sum up, the disadvantages of ultra-processed foods are numerous and can have serious negative effects on our health. They are often stripped of their natural nutrients during processing, they are typically high in calories, sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats, and designed to be addictive, leading to overconsumption and an unhealthy relationship with food. In contrast, whole foods provide a range of health benefits and are essential for maintaining optimal health. If you need some more inspo, check out the Stone Age Staples product range & recipes for more whole food inspo!