What are unrefined foods and why should I care?
Unrefined Vs Refined
Unrefined ingredients are foods which have been minimally processed from their natural state, as opposed to refined ingredients which have been heavily processed.
Examples of unrefined ingredients include fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and oats. These types of foods are nutritionally rich and provide the vital vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to function effectively.
Examples of refined ingredients include white flour, white sugar and margarine. These foods have been processed such that that the fibre, vitamins and minerals within the natural food have been removed, leaving little substance the body can use productively – these foods are empty calories.
Refined ingredients are often then added to other refined ingredients along with additives and preservatives, to make ultra-processed foods that are a far cry from the natural foods they started off as. At the worst end of this scale, think cakes made with bleached flours, emulsifiers, chemical flavouring agents and artificial sugars, white bread “dyed” brown to give the perception it’s healthier. The list goes on.
In recent years, we’ve become very dependent on these types of foods and it’s no wonder given how widely available they are…. ultra-processed foods are everywhere. Turning over the packet of many packaged foods will reveal an extensive ingredient list (sometimes 30+ ingredients in one product) full of things you’ve never heard of and which certainly don’t sound like real foods.
If refined foods are so bad for us, why are they everywhere?
Simple. These types of food are a manufacturer’s dream – they are cheap, and addictive.
Many manufactures have created products which are designed to keep us coming back for more, at the expense of our health.
A recent study1 linked ultra-processed foods with addictive-like eating behaviours and even drew parallels between these types of foods and drugs of abuse. The study found similar properties between the two in relation to rapid rate of absorption and high dosage (think how concentrated high fructose corn syrup is!). Which goes some way to explain why we can rarely stop at just one Jaffa Cake.
We are also more likely to need more of a refined food in order to feel full because they lack the fibre of unrefined foods, so they don’t fill us up in the same way. Think how much easier it would be to eat 3 slices of white bread with butter, versus 3 slices of wholemeal toast with peanut butter, despite them containing similar calories?
What do refined ingredients do to our bodies?
Refined ingredients contain little to no nutritional value – none of the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants present in various unrefined ingredients which are vital to maintaining healthy hearts, strong bones, good cognitive function, healthy skin and hair, to name just a few.
As a result, refined ingredients are absorbed by the body much more quickly (as there is little to process) leading to spikes in blood sugar levels which give you lots of energy initially, but then lead to crashes and fatigue later. Frequent increases and decreases in blood sugar like this have been linked with an increased risk of Type 2 Diabetes2.
In addition, several studies have shown that consumption of ultra-processed, refined foods is a leading cause of heart disease, cardiovascular problems, strokes, obesity and various other chronic illnesses. In fact, a recent study3 linked eating 4 or more servings of ultra-processed foods per day to an increased chance of dying of 62% on average.
To visualise this, if a 65 year old male who eats minimal ultra-processed foods has a chance of dying at this precise moment of 2.5%, the same chance of death for a 65 year old male who eats 4 servings of ultra-processed food per day would be 4.05% (2.5% x 1.62).
Of course, eating ultra-processed food every now and again is not going to kill you, but when there are brands like The Unrefined Bakery challenging the toxic culture of ultra-processed food manufacturing, with products that taste just as good, why would you choose refined over unrefined?
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3 Mortality (5) https://www.bmj.com/content/365/bmj.l1949