Whole Foods: What they Are, Which Are Not

By Cat, Feb and Nov 2007

update links in text for ‘see also items 2 – 7’, that currently go to my old site

Why should you prefer whole foods? Simply put:  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Anthropologists tell us that early peoples were hunter-gatherers, which means that they selected foods–whole foods–available to them in nature, in the form of fruits, berries, roots, leaves, stalks, wild fish and game.  Indeed, until the mid-20th century, the American diet was comprised largely of whole, natural foods:  fresh produce, primarily grown locally; canned bounty from summer gardens, as well as commercially canned foods; fresh whole milk and dairy products from a local dairy and delivered to the door; fresh meats, smoked meats, and sausages from a local butcher.

This all changed after WWII, when industrial processed foods were introduced and became popular.

What Is/Is Not a Whole Food

Whole Foods is a grocery chain, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

Whole Foods

A whole food is one in its natural, minimally processed form. You can grow it in your garden; raise it on your farm; hunt and kill it in the wild; fish it from ocean, lakes or streams; or prepare it in your own kitchen. It can be a single ingredient, or a recipe made up of whole foods. It can also be isolated from the original whole food by a traditional (non-industrial) process; for example: cream or butter, separated from the original milk.

Examples of whole foods:

  • butter
  • homemade chicken stock (made from water, chicken carcass, vegetables, herbs, salt & pepper)
  • raw whole milk with or without its layer of cream
  • homemade sprouted wheat bread (spouted wheat, yeast, water, salt)
  • grilled beef steak
  • poached wild salmon
  • boiled potato
  • carrot sticks
  • tomato slices

What Is NOT a Whole Food

Man-Made (Manufactured) Foods or Additives

Chemical foods and additives manufactured in a lab or industrial facility are not whole foods; when they are added to whole foods, the combination is no longer a whole food; for example, commercially canned soups.  Neither is it a ‘natural food’ isolated from the whole food by industrial process; for example, corn oil pressed from the corn grain under high heat/pressure.

Examples of manufactured foods that are not whole foods:

  • margarine
  • instant chicken broth
  • pasteurized, homogenized 1% fat milk
  • white bread
  • frozen TV dinners
  • most commercial potato chips
  • mono- and di-glycerides
  • MSG
  • preservatives

Refer to Manufactured Foods or Food Additives for more on this subject.

Foods From Animals Fed an Unnatural Diet

Animals raised in feedlots and fed a diet of grains and/or soy, are not as healthful as animals allowed to roam pasture for their feed. Consequently the meat, milk, and eggs from such animals is not as healthful for humans, as that from pasture-fed animals.  The unnatural diet produces meat/milk/eggs that have a different fat and protein structure, not to mention the devastation such a diet has on the poor animal’s health.

Many of these animals are also treated with antibiotics (added to their feed) to keep them healthy and to promote growth, For example, rGBH-hormone treated dairy cows and their milk; beeves raised in a feed lot. Not only is this toxic to the animal, but it is also toxic to the humans who eat the meat, drink the milk. And it is leading to antibiotic-resistant microbes.

Refer to Unnatural Foods from Animals for more on this subject.

Genetically Modified/Engineered (GMO/GE) Foods

With the advent of genetic engineering came a whole new class of foods, that is not identified on the food label (yet).  These are the GM (genetically modified) and GE (genetically engineered) foods, commonly called GMO (genetically modified organism).  These organisms and foods have DNA that has been manipulated by inserting DNA fragments from other species, or from a computer program.

Examples are:

  • GMO corn, soy, canola and cotton products, especially oils
  • Livestock fed GMO grains/soy
  • Commercial milk

Refer to my article Unnatural Foods from Animals for more on this subject.

See also:Mercola’s article: The Health Hazards of GM Corn (8) for info on a study that shows the harm that GMO corn can do. This study is actually Monsanto’s own study, but the data is re-analyzed by an independent team of researchers.

Why Whole Foods?

As I stated above:  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Check out Whole Food Signatures for some whole ‘food for thought.’

It is believed that hunter-gatherers only consumed whole foods, foods available to them in nature, in the form of fruits, berries, roots, leaves, stalks, wild fish and game. When these early peoples discovered they could grow their own using wild seed – agriculture – this home-grown food was still ‘whole food.’ This consumption of whole food continued throughout history, until the late 1940s, with only a few exceptions (like margarine).

The end of WWII brought many changes to the American diet. Industrial fixed nitrogen developed for weapons during the war found new use on American farms as synthetic fertilizer. Chemical herbicides and pesticides were developed to reduce the cost of growing crops, which led to the formation of industrial farms. Many housewives entered the workforce, generating a need for quickly prepared meals and fast foods.  Soon we were no longer eating the nourishing homemade meals of our grandparents and great-grandparents.  We were ‘modern’ consumers demanding ‘modern,’ industrial foods.

Nutritionists started talking in terms of “nutrients” instead of “foods.” Nutrients include: proteins, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, antioxidants, and phytochemicals; magic molecules that would make our bodies hum.  We learned that if our foods were not providing these desirable nutrients, we could obtain them from food additives (for example, enriched white flour) and supplements.

But with all these changes, our American health suffers. Medical costs skyrocket. Hospitals turn people away because they have no empty beds. For a time, the average life-span got longer and longer; but now, as we enter the 21st century, the average life-span is beginning to retreat, as the last 50 years of food experimentation is taking its toll.

I believe that what has gone wrong is that we have strayed from the pleasurable consumption of nutritious whole-food meals, in favor of the fast-paced, stressed-out consumption of highly processed junk.  I can’t even call it “junk food,” because it isn’t even food.

I believe that what makes whole foods so health-giving is not the individual parts, or nutrients, that comprise the foods, but rather their synergistic whole.  What do I mean by synergistic?  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts:

  • Eat a whole apple, and you get more health benefit than if you drink juice made from that apple.
  • Eat an olive with a slice of bread, and you get more health benefit than if you dip that bread into olive oil.

The processing of food introduces problems beyond the separation of parts.

  • It is now well known that partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils (to make margarine) produces toxic trans-fats.
  • High temperature/pressure extraction of vegetable oils such as corn, soybean, and safflower oils turns them rancid and toxic.
  • High temperature/pressure processing of fresh milk causes oxidation and denaturing of those parts, turning them into allergens at best toxic substances at worst.
  • Feeding hogs and cattle a grain diet, changes their fat structure (from Omega-3 to Omega-6) in an effort to make them more lean. This not only affects the health of the animal but also the health of the human consumer. (See also Foods From Animals Fed an Unnatural Diet, above)

Related Issues

Local vs. Organic

Now that you’re thinking about switching to whole foods, lets add another twist.  You go to the local natural foods store and see two boxes of red, ripe apples. One says “Organic” and the other says “Local.”  Which is the better choice?  Of course, if it said “Local and Organic,” you’d undoubtedly choose that.  But this local box of apples doesn’t say ‘Organic.’

Which should you buy?  Which is better for you, and for the environment?

Refer to my articles Local vs Organic and Procuring Healthful Foods for more on this subject.

Whole Foods vs Supplements

A study recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, May 2007 (9) reports that calcium from food sources (raw dairy, green leafy veggies, etc.) may be more effective than calcium from supplements [or from ultra-pasteurized milk] at preventing osteoporosis by increasing bone density.  This is due in part to higher absorption rate for food-source calcium than from supplements; and in part to a change in the estrogen metabolic pathway which favors bone mass.

While this is just one isolated example, I heartily believe that you get more nutritive value from eating whole foods, than from supplements.  You also need less of that food-source nutrient than if you took it in a supplement because food-sours nutrients are generally more readily absorbable. Calcium is a perfect example.  The subjects in the above referenced study who got their calcium from foods, took in only 830 mg as a daily average, as compared with 1030 mg from supplements, and yet showed greater bone density benefit from the food-source calcium (6, 9).

I believe this difference is due to the synergy of whole food nutrients.

Now “whole food” supplements are being marketed. While these may be better than synthetic supplements, I suspect that the process to produce the product (pulverizing, heating, drying, pasteurizing, bleaching, etc.) highly degrades the final product, reducing its nutritive value.

Food Additives

One of the biggest reasons to eat whole foods is to avoid the additives used in processed foods.  Some may be relatively harmless, like salt, but most are quite toxic.  The biggies to watch out for (read food labels):

  • MSG (monosodium glutamate)
  • Aspartame (Equal, Nutrasweet)
  • Partially Hydrogenated and Hydrogenated Fats
  • Mono- and/or di-iglycerides
  • Chemical preservatives such as BHA, BHT

Check out my article on Food Additives for more.  Also Check out the following websites for more information:

  • Center for Science in the Public Interest, on Chemical Cuisine cspinet.org/reports/chemcuisine.htm (10)
  • Janet Starr Hull on food Additives to Avoid (11)

Shopping Bags

When you shop at your local supermarket, organic or natural foods store, or at your local Farmer’s Market, remember to bring a recycled paper bag.  Or better yet, a natural fiber canvas bag (cotton, linen, hemp, etc.), or a basket.

When the checkout clerk asks, “Paper or plastic?” you can reply:  “Neither.  I brought my own.” For more on plastic bags, refer to my article:  Procuring Healthful Foods (links to my old site).


  1. westonaprice.org/modernfood/codliver-manufacture.html
  2. (3) westonaprice.org/soy/lecithin.html
  3. (2) Shedds Country Crock margarine
  4. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citric_acid
  5. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beta_carotene
  6. Mercola on: The best way to get enough calcium (articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2007/07/17/the-best-way-to-get-enough-calcium.aspx)
  7. Mercola on: Plastic Shopping Bags Being Banned (articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2007/07/17/plastic-shopping-bags-being-banned.aspx)
  8. Mercola on The Health Hazards of GM Corn (articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/01/09/GM-Corn-Poses-Health-Hazard.aspx
  9. Study recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, May 2007 (ajcn.org/cgi/content/abstract/85/5/1428)
  10. Center for Science in the Public Interest, on Chemical Cuisine (cspinet.org/reports/chemcuisine.htm)
  11. Janet Starr Hull on food Additives to Avoid (sweetpoison.com/food-additives-to-avoid.html)
  12. cfast.vt.edu/Publications/foodad.shtml (link no longer valid)

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