Processed ... Refined ... Definitions?

A comment by Jane prompted this quick post here.  Often the terms processed food or refined food tend to be used interchangeably in the general nutritional discourse.  I get the general idea -- eating steak, broccoli and a baked potato is eating real, whole, unprocessed and unrefined foods.  Same meal but substitute brown rice for that potato and you have added what I would call a processed food.  The rice "kernel" had to be extracted from the plant.  

So loosely speaking "processing" would include shucking, grinding, cracking, rolling, soaking, fermenting, and ... cooking!  So then that original meal was actually processed food because we didn't just slice off a slab of meat, wash the dirt off of a tuber and some broccoli and eat them.

What of the term "refined"?  Well, I tend to associate that with separating one component of a whole food from the rest of it.  Thus whole wheat flour is processed (and I probably mixed up my own descriptives in the comment exchange with Jane), white flour with the bran and germ removed is refined.  But this truly opens up a whole can of worms.

Here is a one page summary PDF from Practical Paleo by Diane Sanfilippo.  Lumped into refined foods are all whole grains, while I would argue that buckwheat groats and such are far less refined than "paleo approved" fats.  Also lumped under refined foods in the right hand column?  Pretty much all dairy.  "Raw dairy is a gray area".  And yet, from the more in depth Balanced Bites PDF:

Remind me where butter and ghee come from again?  Raw dairy is a "gray area" but taking just the fat out of it, and going the extra mile to remove any trace of proteins (ghee), that is *quality*!!  Still, I will concede that dairy fat separation is minimal processing.  But I am sorry, coconut oil does not fit this bill.  It just doesn't.  Nor, quite frankly, does any oil although a case could be made for when you grind peanuts the oil does tend to separate out quite well all on its own.  Which doesn't make them necessarily good or bad or whatever, but let's be consistent when we advocate for certain food types, shall we?  

Coming off of the Paleoista/Cordain appearance on Dr. Oz, here's a thought.  Olives and peaches are both fruits.  If someone were to extract and sell peachysweet sugar, that would be refining, no?      It would make the lists of sugar-in-disguise, no doubt.  The fructose would be bad without the attendant fiber and other good stuff in the whole fruit (or at least if that's what you are inclined to believe).   So why, then, is olive oil any different?  Both are refined foods -- isolated parts of the whole.  And yet human ingenuity has had us doing this sort of thing to at least some extent for thousands of years.  Don't get me started on chocolate!

Let's face it.  Whatever your dietary philosophy (unless you are a raw foodie who only eats whole foods) you're eating some processed and/or refined foods.  How about we not lump in those that don't fit in with a certain philosophy with the SA(junkfood)D just to demonize them?  Almond milk doesn't grow on trees. I think most of us do better to base our diets on real whole foods, but there's room and even a place for the processed and refined.  


Nigel Kinbrum said…
I'm glad you wrote this, 'cos it's a bit of a grey area. Jane referred to the Hunza refining their wheat into flour but it wasn't a problem.

I argued that Hunza stone-ground flour had relatively large particles, compared to modern roller-ground flour which has tiny particles. There are degrees of refinement.
Minimal refining O.K.
Excessive refining not O.K.
Susanne said…
Ironically grains don't really have to be processed at all to be edible. You can just pull them right off the plant, rub the husks off between your hands, pop the seeds in your mouth and chew them, uncooked. I use oat groats and rye and wheat berries in baking, and cook them whole for breakfast, and I've tried them uncooked out of the bag too -- a bit drier than when they are fresh but still quite manageable. A bit chewy/crunchy, but anybody with a normal set of teeth can handle them. They are very similar to Grape-Nuts in texture/density, although of course without the added sugar. If they are toasted they go more toward crunchy, and taste better also. I'm always surprised when I read a Paleo/Primal person declare that grains are inedible if they are not ground and cooked. Very sad not to even try the archaeological experiment personally to check out the possibility, rather than just imagine what you would do if you were Grok.

Chickpeas are also fine parched/toasted but not boiled, and are a very popular snack in some parts of the Mediterranean/Middle East. I don't know the safety of the other legumes unboiled. Some might give you not much more than an upset stomach though, similar to some uncooked tubers. Most grains/beans will probably yield more bioavailable nutrients cooked than raw, of course, like tubers.
Gwen Jones said…
I'm so glad you wrote this Susanne (although I know I could experiment). I've been reading the Old Testament and was intrigued by the accounts of people eating wheat directly from the plant itself. So, thanks to you, I'm going to try the toasting and eating of wheat berries. :)
Nigel Kinbrum said…
What about "whole"? There are 2 definitions that I know of.
1) Whole = every part thereof. This is the definition used by food manufacturers.
2) Whole = in one piece. This is the definition used by me.
Susanne said…
I have seen Darya Pino (summertomato blog) and some others use "intact" for your #2. There are some studies of "whole grain" showing that "intact" actually has different physical effects (insulin reaction etc) than "whole grain" even when the same parts (germ, bran etc) are administered. In fact, did I maybe get this article here? "Particle size of wheat, maize, and oat test meals: effects on plasma glucose and insulin responses and on the rate of starch digestion in vitro."

That was in vitro, but here is a 1999 in vivo that showed no differences: "The Effect of Particle Size of Whole-Grain Flour on Plasma Glucose, Insulin, Glucagon and Thyroid-Stimulating Hormone in Humans"
Susanne said…
Caveat: I have only used toasted wheat berries in small amounts with a mix of other seeds like steel cut oats in bread crusts (rolling the dough in the mix before baking). So maybe try it in small amounts first? Might work as part of a muesli too. I usually eat them simmered for breakfast.

If you want to try the chickpeas, you can do them at home with canned or overnight soaked ones, google "roasted chickpeas", they're very popular on different cooking sites.
Jane Karlsson said…
Susanne, I think you're an anthropologist, right? I'd be very interested to know what you think of Clifford Jolly's 1970 paper arguing that humans originated as seed-eaters.
'The Seed-Eaters: A New Model of Hominid Differentiation Based on a Baboon

I studied zoology at Oxford where the emphasis was on evolution and comparative anatomy, and I like Jolly's arguments. But the paper is a bit technical for me, perhaps it isn't for you.
Nigel Kinbrum said…
Jane Karlsson said…
Nigel, there are problems with what you're suggesting. Everybody else reserves the word refined for white flour, white rice and white sugar. Once you call wholemeal flour refined, you are introducing quite unnecessary confusion into the discussion. The only person I have ever seen calling wholemeal flour refined besides yourself is Evelyn in the previous thread, and she has now corrected herself.

You use the word refined because you think finely ground wholemeal flour is less healthy than coarse flour or whole wheat berries because in some studies it has a higher glycemic index. I would argue that glycemic index doesn't mean much. The glycemic index of starchy foods can be greatly reduced by eating them with dairy products, for instance, according to Paul Jaminet. Stephan Guyenet has a post entitled 'It's time to let go of the glycemic index'.

Now Gary Taubes thinks glycemic index is very important indeed. He thinks wholemeal flour is just as bad as white flour because they have the same glycemic index. He has no idea whatsoever that obesity and diabetes might be caused by deficiencies of the micronutrients removed from white flour and other refined carbs, although the evidence to my mind is overwhelming.
Nigel Kinbrum said…
" I would argue that glycemic index doesn't mean much."
I would argue that glycaemic index means a lot! See
Jane, we have discussed your micronutrient ideas a while back. In that discussion, we touched on your idea of a 1:1 copper to iron ratio. On a whole grain diet--flour or otherwise--this is virtually impossible. The one food that does have an almost 1:1 ratio of copper to iron is beef liver.

I won't discuss the idea of compensating the GI issue with high fat dairy, which can have its own problems for those with insulin resistance, weight issues, and cholesterol problems. If GI doesn't matter, then why get into reducing it?

The real question: if it is all about essentially micronutrient status. And that saturated fat, which is hardly one monolith, doesn't matter. And carbohydrates tolerance is a result of poor micronutrient status. I don't see any of that supporting a case for whole grains at all. If anything, it's making the case for paleo with fruit and offal.
Susanne said…
Ah, I see. The point in Behall was to see what impact the tastier ultrafine whole wheat would have, since the WW bread consistency is a turnoff.

"Conventional" flour is unlikely to be stone-ground. When I buy flour the label will specify if it is stone-ground; it is normally more expensive and is often produced by the smaller mills which also specialize in organic flours.

According to my bread baking forums, stone-ground is normally going to be "whole grain" by default, e.g. have all parts of the grain since the stone-ground product can't be separated as with the conventional modern milling. (So stone-ground also has a shorter shelf-life because of the oils and germ parts retained in it.) Regular "whole grain flour" is actually reconstituted from the separated parts. The separating/reconstituting done by the big flour companies is also to keep a consistent product, because e.g. the amount of protein in grains can vary from field to field, and from year to year.
Susanne said…
Hi Jane, I'm a bronze age archaeologist, not so much in the early hominin evolution except for keeping reasonably up-to-date to teach the Intro Archaeology classes. I can take a look at the article. 1970 is ages and ages in the field of human evolution though. I think the grass-eating ancestors are now no longer thought to be in our direct line. One way to assess how the article is regarded now is to look at more recent citations to it in Google Scholar: search the article title in there and then click on the "citations" link in the entry. The number of citations is a way of assessing its impact (to use the jargon). But then if you sort by "after 2009" or something in the left hand side, you can find an article which might discuss/review it in terms of the current knowledge. Here is the result for citations since 2009:,5
Nigel Kinbrum said…
I don't have a problem with wheat being stone-ground into flour & then immediately being made into bread.

My problem with modern food is that it's become just another commodity to be bought & sold for profit. Long shelf life maximises profitability at the expense of nutritional value. Grrr!
Jane Karlsson said…
Well if your pancreas is malfunctioning it can matter. But your pancreas isn't malfunctioning because you ate high glycemic index foods, it's malfunctioning because you ate refined carbs, which coincidentally have a high glycemic index. Refined carbs make it produce insulin without supplying the micronutrients it needs. Gary Taubes are you listening.
Nigel Kinbrum said…
There's never been anything wrong with my pancreas. See

With me (and a large percentage of the sedentary population) it's always been about insulin resistance, and you know what I did about that!
Jane Karlsson said…
Oh god Nigel, I didn't mean YOUR pancreas. I should have said 'one's pancreas' like the Queen, I suppose.

No I don't know what you did about insulin resistance. I'm all ears, or should I say eyes.
Nigel Kinbrum said…
You read the info' in the blog post with the S Club 7 video in it, didn't you?
Anyway, a party is calling me. Gotta go. Bye!
desmondindalkey said…
The Queen would say 'Our pancreas', where another would refer to 'one's pancreas'.

I, myself have been known to refer to 'my sweetbread'. However, this has sometimes been misunderstood . . . .

The substitution of 'you' for 'one' leads both to confusion - as in Nigel's comment - and indignation, where 'one's view' is the opposite of 'your view' and mostly 'your view' is in actuality 'my view'.

I often wax indignantly on hearing sentences such as "We are eating 147 teaspoons of added sugar per day"; the radio, however, refuses to transmit my answer -"I stopped adding sugar to tea or coffee when I was eleven".

" . . . there's the (lack of) respect

That makes calamity of so long life;"
Screennamerequired said…
Processed and refined are names thrown at foods people don't like, such bread, which we shouldn't eat because it's processed and refined. Refined and processed fats get a pass though, even if they're largely empty calories. Refining and processing isn't really all bad in many circumstances, as long as the nutritional quality is largely remained intact, unlike coconut oil from coconuts. I don't think the glycemic load matters for healthy people but it can definitely help people with metabolic problems. Although that's only part of the dietary equation. Even Burgers, Chocolate cakes and milkshakes are all fairly low GI foods.
Jane Karlsson said…
Thanks Susanne, that's a great help. I thought you might be interested in the article because people are quoting it now that we know the hominin Paranthropus boisei was a grass eater. It ate leaves, seeds and tubers of grasses, apparently. Clifford Jolly had argued in 1970 that humans could not have started out as meat eaters, because they didn't have the physical characteristics necessary to catch/eat more than a small amount of meat like chimpanzees do. They must have done something else, and he suggests their anatomy was much better suited to picking up and eating grains than to catching and eating meat.
Karin said…
So, is this the paleo definition of processed? Because, I don't think your brown rice example is what most people think of when they think of processed food, and it certainly isn't what I think of. When health professionals tell people to avoid processed food I doubt they are thinking of brown rice or even almond milk. I agree with your refined definition. The dictionary definition is free from impurities or free from coarseness. However, when I think of processed food the image that occurs to me is something that is so far removed from its original state that it hardly resembles food. Things like American cheese, non-dairy whipped topping, and junk foods like Cheetos. Can you even tell that Cheetos are a corn product if you don't look at the ingredients? Perhaps my view of the word processed is wrong. Looking at the other comments I do appear to be in the minority.
carbsane said…
I think the paleos in general are taking truly processed foods like you list and indiscriminately lumping real foods in with them. Even white rice, which is processed, is not the same as eating Cheetos, and I'm sorry, but rice of all colors has been a dietary staple in many healthy human cultures.

My greater point was that we could use these terms to apply to all manner of foods and IMO the paleos are guilty of doing that with so-called bad foods while not recognizing that many of their so-called good foods are equally "guilty". Also to correct/clarify my comment to Jane.

This notion that somehow grains and legumes aren't even real food (read blogs like Paleoista's for just a few days and you'll get the point) because to eat them some processing may be required, yet chocolate truffles and coconut butter are, because these just grow on trees? Laughable!
Karin said…
Ah, I see. I guess I tend to avoid Paleoista. Maybe I should read it for the entertainment value.
Diana Moon said…
Yes, people have been processing foods for as long as...well, whenever. Yes, the grinding stones that date back to Paleolithic times is evidence of processing.

But surely we can all agree that there's a difference between a Pop Tart and corn bread, even corn bread made with lard? People are literally living on modern processed foods and the results are terrible.
carbsane said…
My favorite ever was the suggestion to spread coconut oil on raw veggies as a substitute for peanut butter. Yum!
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