Refined vs. Unrefined Foods: What Are the Differences?

Refining a food is the process of stripping away certain nutrients in order to achieve a particular color, taste, or texture.

Generally, health experts advocate avoiding refined foods as much as possible—not always easy in this country, where they are a huge part of many Americans' diets. The kinds of foods most likely to be sold as refined include the following:

Grains. White rice and white pasta are staples in most restaurants. White bread is a perennial favorite of the school-age set. Popular breakfast cereals are typically stripped of their nutrients through artificial coloring and sweeteners.

The flour used to make bakery muffins, pies, and cookies is most likely white. Pretty color and fluffy texture aside, refined white grains add very little nutrition to your diet. Because they're digested quickly, they can also wreak havoc on your blood sugar levels, causing quick spikes and drops.

Make a commitment to buying whole grain versions of your favorite carbohydrates. Most supermarkets have generic versions of whole wheat pasta. Or look for pasta made from other grains such as quinoa, which provides lots of protein and fiber.

Similarly, stick with brown rice instead of white, and pick breakfast cereals made with whole grains such as bran, oats, and wheat. Whole grain cereals will offer more fiber than refined cereals. If you're breading foods or baking treats, choose whole grain flour. You'll get the same delicious flavor with extra vitamins and nutrients.

Sugar. Much has been made of unrefined sugar, or "raw" sugar, by natural foods proponents. Raw sugar is minimally processed to retain molasses, which gives it a distinctive brown color and caramel flavor. Is it healthier than refined white sugar? Perhaps, but only barely. It's true that there are trace minerals in unrefined sugar, but probably not enough to make much difference.

According to the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), raw sugar that's  lumped in with white sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, and all other kinds of sugars as something to be wary of. If you're trying to cut down on added sugars in foods, don't look to unrefined sugar as a healthy alternative.

Fruits and vegetables. Although we don't ordinarily think of them this way, produce sold in jars and cans have been processed. Cooking and canning strips fruits and vegetables of some of their nutrients. Still, while you should choose fresh produce whenever possible, processed fruits and vegetables are better than none. Look for varieties without any added sugar or salt, and pay attention to expiration dates.





Mayo Clinic. "Whole Grains: Hearty Options For a Healthy Diet." Web.

Australian Government Department of Health and Aging. "Factsheet-Processed Fruits and Vegetables." Web.

Whole Foods Market. "Guide to Sweeteners." Web.