Processed vs. Fresh Food: What is the difference, and does it really matter?

Fresh food dinner

For consumers under time and financial constraints, cheap and quick meals are an appealing choice. Eating healthy is not always an option, but even when it is, seemingly endless products labeled as “natural” and “organic” may not be as good for you as you think.

With limited regulation over the use and definition of these terms, the health benefits of these products can be limited. And with substantial research connecting low quality diets with the nation’s growing obesity epidemic, rise of diabetes and heart disease, can going back to basics by preparing meals with fresh, whole ingredients really be the solution? It seems too good to be true.

Is Fresh Better? 

The answer is yes, but knowing what you are buying may be the key.

With items such as fruit and vegetable juice or even the dehydrated fruit in dry cereals marketed by some manufacturers as counting towards fruit and vegetable servings, it’s time to take a step back, define “fresh,” and take a look and what we are really eating.

The definition of “fresh” is often misconstrued by simply serving an item at the expected temperature – hot or cold.  Foods high in sodium, additives, and poor quality ingredients undermine nutrition education, the quality of wellness programs, or even evidence-based nutritional research findings. Fresh foods are not frozen or preserved in any way.  They are sourced locally and are able to retain their nutritional value and flavor while being thoughtfully prepared that very day.

What is not highlighted by many food labels or manufacturers are all the hidden ingredients – from added sugar, sodium, and unpronounceable preservatives, to additives, flavoring, and coloring.  Commonly used, artificially enriched grains are not as healthful as those that remain intact during production. The addition of brown coloring to some breads may mislead consumers into thinking they are purchasing whole grains, when in fact the product is not.  Due to the need to extend shelf-life and reduce manufacturing costs, many lesser quality ingredients are often utilized – including those that are harmful to our health, like sodium solution fillers or saturated and hydrogenated fat sources.

The Cost of Processing Foods

Focusing on fresh ingredients not only promotes improved health, but also boosts nutrients and flavor profiles.  Any type of processing such as canning, freezing or drying can deteriorate the quality of nutrients, fiber, flavor, and even natural color.  A simple test is comparing fresh, frozen, and canned carrots.  The fresh carrots retain a bright orange color, with a crispness superior to the canned or frozen variety.

Processed v Fresh 2Processing of any type also reduces the nutrient content, and may even strip away those vital antioxidants that support immune health and protect cells from damage.  Given research is still identifying additional health-promoting compounds in fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. it is difficult to know what is the total loss when processing.  In addition, choosing fresh ingredients promotes synergy of nutrients that may not necessarily occur if the items were processed.  Even after processed grains are enriched, the final product is less nutritious than the original whole grain.  As a result, much of the fiber content is lost, making it difficult to meet the minimum guidelines set by the USDA of 25-30 grams per day.

Many consumers choose pre-made frozen entrees and sides simply for convenience, but typical sodium content for a frozen entrée ranges 700 to 1300 mg – 30-50% of the daily maximum recommendation of 2500 mg.  According to the CDC, a reduction of sodium intake from the current national average of 3400 mg to 2300 mg per day may reduce cases of high blood pressure by 11 million per year – saving an additional 18 billion healthcare dollars in the same time period.

It may be surprising to know buying fresh, raw ingredients is less expensive than selecting processed items.  The more steps required to process a food item, the higher the cost.  For example, raw brown rice is considerably less than a smaller quantity of boxed rice mix complete with dehydrated vegetables, white rice, and sodium-rich seasoning.  Choosing fresh is easy as well.  By simply shopping the parameter of the grocery store reduces selections to mainly fresh produce, meats & poultry, and dairy.

Leading by Example

Organizations can lead by example by offering food programs that educate and encourage their members on the benefits of making healthy choices. While many organizations strive for improved health and wellness, some still offer menus filled with highly processed food items.

Executive leadership may be totally unaware that most of the food offered by dining services is simply a “heat & serve” program, with very little, if any, food made from scratch. By partnering with a dining provider that is committed to a true fresh food program, the health of an entire organization can see marked improvements over time. This simple step will demonstrate their commitment to health and wellness while giving their members a jump start on a healthier life (or making it easier for those who already are!).

Unidine’s Fresh Approach

At Unidine, our Fresh Food Pledge is at the core of our approach to dining services. We only use fresh, locally sourced ingredients with scratch cooking techniques that take advantage of the latest nutritional and culinary information. All of our fresh food programs are developed to improve wellness by introducing great flavor and healthy options into any dining program.

Learn more about our Fresh Food Pledge

This article was written by Jenny Overly, Unidine’s Director of Nutrition, Health, & Wellness