Real Food Vs. Processed Food?

This might sound like what some call a “no brainer”. However, the food industry works very hard to convince us that processed food is real food.  Let’s explore some of the topics related to Real Food and Processed Food and let you decide for yourself.



Beautiful poster art by Joe Wirtheim – Says it all!

“Prioritizing real foods is, hands down, the most effective way to make lifestyle changes to help you reach your health goals. Forgo highly processed and minimally nutritious junk, no matter how seductive the health claims. Your tastebuds — and body — will thank you.”
-Andy Bellatti

“The short definition of ‘real’ food is food that doesn’t have a Nutrition Facts label. If it has a label, something’s been done to the food. If it doesn’t, nothing’s been done, it’s ‘real.”
-Robert Lustig, MD

“Eat the most flavorful, best-tasting whole foods you can find—amazing tomatoes, killer strawberries, sublime peaches, awesome grass-fed beef. You’ll soon discover that junk food just doesn’t stack up to the real thing. As your palate changes, your body will, too. Eating ‘real food’ won’t be a challenge anymore—it’ll be a way of life.”
-Mark Schatzker, Author of “The Dorito Effect”

“Real food is food that comes directly from the earth or is kept as close to that state as possible. Real food nourishes with the shortest, most pronounceable ingredients list—it’s safe to eat, but when left to its own devices, it can rot away.”
-Trinh Le, MPH, RD, MyFitnessPal Registered Dietitian


Dr. Robert Lustig Breaks Down Real Food Vs. Processed Food


The short definition of “Real” Food is food that doesn’t have a Nutrition Facts label. If it has a label, something’s been done to the food. If it doesn’t, nothing’s been done, it’s “real”.

The long definition of “Real” Food is food that’s NOT “Processed” food. So what’s processed food?

There are seven criteria:

  1. Has to be mass produced
  2. Has to be consistent batch to batch
  3. Has to be consistent country to country
  4. Specialized ingredients from specialized companies
  5. Virtually all macronutrients are pre-frozen, which means that the fiber is usually removed
  6. Has to stay emulsified (fat and water don’t separate)
  7. Has to have long shelf-life or freezer life

Ultimately processed food has three things too little (taken away), and seven things too much (added):

Too little:

  1. Fiber
  2. Omega-3 fatty acids (wild fish)
  3. Micronutrients

Too much:

  1. Trans-fats
  2. Branched chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, valine)
  3. Omega-6 fatty acids (plant oils, polyunsaturates)
  4. Additives
  5. Emulsifiers (polysorbate-80, carboxymethylcellulose)
  6. Salt
  7. And the big kahuna, sugar!
Real Food Compared to Processed Food

How does real food compare to processed food? Just take a look at this infographic that compares equivalent items. Click here: real food vs processed food poster for a larger PDF version.

real food vs processed food poster


Is Processed Food an Experiment that has Failed?

“Imagine the last 50 years was an experiment. The food industry posed the hypothesis: Processed food is better than real food.”

In the video below, Dr. Robert Lustig tells the story of how consumption of processed food now represents one third of total food consumption in the United States.

The difference between processed food and real food is huge. Processed foods do not have enough fiber, Omega-3 fatty acids (wild fish), micronutrients and too much Trans-fats and branched chain amino acids, Omega-6 fatty acids, additives, emulsifiers, salt and sugar.

And, the calories in processed food aren’t just “empty calories” – these are toxic calories.

Research has shown that out of the 600,000 items in the American food supply, 74 percent have added sugar. Furthermore, of 4.000 packaged items in the American food supply, the amount of salt is 50 percent higher than is recommended.

“In the USA, the food industry grosses $1 trillion per year – $450 billion is gross profit. In the USA, health care costs total $2.7 trillion/year – 75 percent of which is chronic metabolic diseases and 75 percent of which is preventable. Thus, $1.4 trillion/year is wasted.  We lose triple what the food industry makes,” Lustig explains. That’s not a very good return on the investment from a public health perspective.

In conclusion, the processed food experiment has succeeded in dramatically increasing the consumption of unhealthy food – and increased profits for the food companies, but it has failed dramatically when it comes to human health. And there is only one answer: Real food.

Can We Afford Real Food?

Shopping for real food can sometimes be more expensive and time consuming than cheap processed food, but is this junk food really cheaper? What is the true cost of food? We have to consider the “externalities”.

Food Related Disease is Eating Up the U.S. Health Care Budget

The U.S. Food Industry grosses $1 trillion yearly, $450 billion in gross profit. The U.S. Health Care cost of preventable, chronic disease totals $1.5 trillion yearly. Societal losses triple food industry profits. This is unsustainable.

You can apply this same kind of math to your personal budget. Sometimes it seems like healthier food costs more, but the costs of eating processed food can actually be much higher, if you consider the health care issues that come along with it. 75% of chronic disease in the U.S. is driven by diet – and is preventable. Perhaps it takes more time to shop at the farmers’ market, and perhaps the prices are higher than the supermarket or getting a fast food dinner, but think about your long term health and how you will feel. No one likes spending time in the doctor’s waiting room, and even if you have good health insurance, the bills pile up.

Real Food Sources

We don’t promote any particular “diet”. We simply encourage everyone to consume real, whole, clean, unprocessed foods, rich in nutrients and high in fiber. You can’t go wrong avoiding food additives and ultra-processing.

We suggest shopping at farmers’ markets or focusing on the perimeter aisles of the grocery store (produce, meat, dairy, etc.) and to be scrupulous when purchasing foods with a label (most real foods usually do not have a label).


1. A great online resource for finding sources of real food in your community is the USDA Local Food Directories – a gateway to locate local food retail and wholesale market outlets. You can search for markets and operations according to zip code, product availability, payment method and even whether the market participates in Federal nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Farmers Market, CSA, Food Hub and On-farm Market Directories are now available for public viewing.

2. CAFF (Community Alliance with Family Farmers) is an organization that promotes “family-scale agriculture that cares for the land, sustains local economies and promotes social justice.” CAFF compiles guides for eating locally in various regions of California. Here is The Eater’s Guide to Local Food: 4th Edition featuring the San Francisco Bay Area.

3. Eat Well Guide is a search engine for finding sustainable (and local) foods.

4. PCFMA (Pacific Coast Farmer’s Market Association) is a nonprofit in the San Francisco Bay Area that operates and promotes farmer’s markets; a major resource for Northern Californians.

5. FarmRaiser is an “alternative to traditional fundraisers that have been lost in a sea of sugar and junk food. It is a powerful and innovative way to raise money for your project while helping to build a stronger, healthier community. We use technology and old fashioned organizing to create product-based fundraisers that allow students to sell healthy products from local businesses.”

6. REAL certified is a certification program that promotes sustainable and healthful food and beverages.

7. Edible Startups is a “blog dedicated to sharing innovative ideas and ventures in the food industry.”

8. The Food Evolution is an organization that teaches people how to prepare delicious and nutritious meals.

9. Collective School Garden Network is a foundation that plants gardens in schools all around Arizona and California.

10. FamilyFarmed is a “non-profit organization committed to expanding the production, marketing and distribution of locally grown and responsibly produced food, in order to enhance the social, economic, and environmental health of our communities.” They host the annual Good Food Festival & Conference.

11. Local Food Lab is “a startup academy and online community for food entrepreneurs.”

12. CUESA offers farm tours, cooking demonstrations, seasonal tastings and other events to help the public learn more about their food.

13. American Kale Association is a website that informs the public about kale and all of its health benefits.

14. Meals To Heal is an organization “dedicated to making the lives of cancer patients and their caregivers easier and less stressful by providing services which relieve them of the significant time, energy and worry associated with ensuring proper nutrition for themselves and their loved ones.”

15. From the Garden to the Table applies a “full-circle” approach to problems involving poor nutrition and food environments by involving students, parents, teachers, schools, and communities in creating better health and more supportive and greener environments.

16. Real Food Cup was founded by Kristin Zellhart, certified nutrition educator because she saw a gap in the “convenience” food market. With her nutrition background, love for real food and drive for changing the food landscape she decided to start a local food company to change how we consume meals “on the go”. She believes we must move from processed food back to real food.

17. Amp Your Good reimagines a way to run food drives – a unique blend of crowdfeeding, social networking, gamification and curation all designed to help people and organizations raise food instead of funds.

18. Farmers’ Market Finder – California. Just enter your address and find the markets nearest you that accept CalFresh EBTWIC and offer Market Match* incentives.

19. Eating Real Food just got easier. Check out More than 50% of U.S. consumers now eat out every day. Why not eat an establishment that cares about human health, the environment, and animal welfare?