What Is Real Food?

by | Jan 29, 2024 | Nutrition, Real Food

Image: Shutterstock

Regardless of the philosophical, social, or cultural values which may guide your food choices, a diet rich in real foods will be healthier than one loaded up with ultra-processed foods.

We read, hear, and talk a great deal about different ways to classify food: number of calories, plant-based, low carb, vitamin content, amount of fiber, and gluten-free, to name just a few.  

Unfortunately, all these types of classifications have directly contributed to a common complaint about nutrition, “Why is figuring out what to eat so confusing?” 

If you’ve ever yearned for a better way to simplify making food choices, there’s good news. In recent years a new classification system, based on levels of food processing, has been attracting more and more attention.  

The NOVA system1 categorizes food based on a spectrum of levels of processing which range from unprocessed to ultra-processed (the latter defined as “formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, typically created by series of industrial techniques and processes”). 

Most of the food we eat has been processed to one degree or another.  The type and degree of processing significantly affects whether a food is good or bad for health. There’s growing research evidence that foods with higher levels of processing, and particularly ultra-processed foods, are significantly detrimental to your health. 

On the other end of the processing spectrum from highly-processed food is “real food”: food either in its natural state (without processing) or which has been lightly processed.  

Examples of light processing include chopping, seasoning, cooking, and fermenting designed to retain the basic qualities of the food while making it more enjoyable to eat and more nutritious for health.   

It’s important to understand that a single type of food can be made available in a wide variety of products, ranging from natural and minimally processed to greater levels of processing to foods with a multitude of additives and artificial ingredients.  

Take cheese2. All cheese is a type of processed food, since it requires various steps and additives to turn milk into a solid. But there’s a huge difference between lightly processed cheese, which generally consists of just a few ingredients, and ultra-processed, brightly colored, shelf-stable “cheese products,” which contain multiple chemicals and preservatives. 

Fermentation is an example of light processing which can increase health benefits of the food.3 Fermentation happens when yeasts or bacteria convert carbohydrates into alcohol or acids that act as a preservative while imparting a zesty flavor. Fermented foods include yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, miso, kombucha, and kimchi. This not only provides a natural way to preserve foods but brings along health benefits, thus fermented foods can be a healthy alternative to the conventional processed foods that require chemical additives or preservatives to remain shelf stable.  

Regardless of the philosophical, social, or cultural values which may guide your food choices, a diet rich in real foods will be healthier than one loaded up with ultra-processed foods.  A plant-based real food diet is better than one composed of ultra-processed foods. The same holds true for keto, gluten-free, or any other diet you may choose. If you follow a specialized diet for individual needs, such as lactose or gluten intolerances, choose real foods without gluten or lactose. 

Additionally, a real food diet passes the test of time; societies and cultures different in many ways have maintained good health over hundreds of years eating only real food. In sharp contrast, the rapid rise of the “diseases of civilization” like diabetes, heart disease, and elevated blood pressure coincides with the introduction and widespread consumption of ultra-processed foods. 

The bottom line? Focus on real foods to simplify your food choices and to create nutritionally balanced, diverse, and delicious meals.  

Bob Graves

Bob Graves


Bob Graves is a long-time veteran of publishing of health, environmental and public-benefit information. He holds a Masters degree in Nutrition from UC Davis.

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