The What & Why of Whole Foods?

I am asked almost daily, what do you mean by whole foods? Why whole foods? Aren't all the foods I eat whole foods, the grocery store wouldn't sell me foods that contain bad stuff right? RIGHT?

What Are Whole Foods?

Whole foods are foods that are in an unadulterated state, that is they resemble their original source without added non-food substances or without major unnatural processing. Many packaged foods available on shelves today are full of E-Numbers (click the link to see the Kitchen School list of E-Numbers), making them far from food, they are food scientist prepared chemical concoctions!

My way of defining whether something is a whole food or not is this, has this food been through more than 2 steps to get where it is? Some examples of this include:

  • Cold pressed oils - 1. Harvest oil producing plant -> 2. Press for Oil
  • Flours - 1. Harvest seed/nut -> 2. Grind for Flour
  • Nut Mylk - 1. Whole nut/seed soaked in water -> 2. Blended and strained for Mylk liquid

There are very few foods that I would classify as whole foods that have gone past two changes, naturally when these foods are added to a recipe this is ok (unless it is being mixed with artificial colourings, preservatives or flavourings!). Extracts of, isolates of, and heat-extracted foods are modified to the point where they are foreign to the body, that is, there is nothing in nature that matches this food (despite the use of food scientist terms "nature-identical" or "derived from x plant").

The simple way to define a whole food is this, "how close to nature is this food I am eating?".

Why Whole Foods?

This is the most important thing to understand, why should we focus on eating whole foods over processed foods? Our digestive tracts and the lovely bacterial friends that live within have evolved over the last 1 million years to eat foods that were freely available in our environments, living from the land, and eventually from our wild-tamed gardens. 10,000 years ago, the first fermenting foods for storage was undertaken. 5000 years ago, human civilisation mastered salt preserving and canning. Within the last 200 years began the modern version of processing foods, with the introduction of pasteurisation,  refining of foods, the discovery of chemical additives, and preserving techniques which changed the foods fundamentally from their original states. So, for less than 0.02% of our existence as humans (or 0.1% as homo sapiens), we have been indulging in foods or food that have been manufactured with additives and techniques that did not exist previously.

The LCM's you put in your kids lunch box last week, your great-great-great-great grandparents would never have heard of this wizardry! They would wonder how could you have eaten a food that has the shelf life of several years (that wasn't dehydrated, fermented or pickled), contains this strange white substance supposedly called sugar (sugar during their time was more than likely similar to the rapadura or panela sugars we know today) and has these things added that were very much a twinkle in the food chemists eye (Acetylated oxidised starch, Hydroxypropyl distarch phosphate, Acetylated distarch adipate and Potassium chloride were definitely not added to foods back then!).

Our guts have simply not got the guts to handle these foods, we have a resilience to a point, until food allergies and digestive-based illnesses come to the surface. If our bodies have taken hundreds of thousands of years to evolve to where they are today, would it be safe to say that our digestive systems are the same? Let's respect our evolution and return to whole foods, and allow lightly-processed whole foods in as a complimentary part to our diet (yes, it is perfectly OK to bake that whole food gluten free muffin!).

The Simple Breakdown

So, the simple story, why whole foods? Because our digestion and bodies have not adapted to these foreign foods, these frankenfoods if you like. As our digestion breaks down what we deem as food, it has learnt to know which molecules of food are fuel for the body and which are toxic or not useful to the body.

So the question is this, what food do you think serves you, and fuels your body best? Processed foods that have a raft of additives and modifications or whole foods that have been mildly processed or 100% fresh?