Chef Holly Pierce is back this week with an education on the term “whole foods” – and what it means to eat them.
When we hear someone say the words ‘whole foods’ often we immediately think of the grocery store chain that has been steadily rising in popularity (and numbers) since its inception in the 1980’s. Indeed, the original Whole Foods Market was conceived in order to “provide a more natural alternative to what the food supply was typically offering at the time” in part by offering local, natural and organic whole foods. They have since expanded their repertoire and offer many different types of food items, some of which are considered ‘whole’.
So what exactly is a whole food? An amalgamation of definitions from Webster’s, Wikipidea and Dictionary.com describes a whole food (or whole foods) as: food that has been minimally processed or refined and contains no additives or artificial substances; food in its whole form. Fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh meats, dairy items, eggs, beans and unrefined grains (rice, oats, barley, etc) are all examples of whole foods. A rule of thumb has been that whole foods can be found in the perimeter aisles of the grocery store, in the produces, dairy, meat and fish and bakery sections. While this is true to a certain degree, not all foods in those sections are free from additives or artificial substances. This is where things start to get confusing. Let’s start with processing.
Processing is a term used to describe the course of action taken starting with the raw ingredient (beets for example) to the end product (let’s say pickled). The more steps and additives involved, the more processed the food is. In this case, the beets would be minimally processed as they involve only few other natural ingredients (sugar, vinegar, salt) and one step to pickle them. Most processed foods (think any items in a box, can or sealed bag) contain additives and preservatives in order to keep them shelf-stable and prolong their life. Some common additives include nitrates or nitrites, BHA and BHT, artificial colorings and flavorings, high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils. Meats and dairy can also contain preservatives and additives (such as hormones and antibiotics).
How do we recognize whole foods? One sure-fire way is to choose foods that are in their most natural form and read the label if it comes in a package. Yes, whole foods can come in packages. Frozen fruits and vegetables, for example, are whole foods (provided the only ingredient in the package is said fruit or vegetable). A loaf of bread is a whole food. Ideally, bread has about 3 ingredients; flour, yeast and water. If the label on your loaf of bread has more than say, 5 ingredients and some of those you either do not recognize or cannot pronounce, set it back on the shelf and look for another one. Other examples of whole foods in a package are grains (rice, pasta, oats, etc), beans, vegetables, and sauces.
Great places to find whole foods are your local farm stand, farmers market/CSA share or co-op. Buy your baked goods from a local, scratch-made bakery or if you are feeling really adventurous, make them yourself! Ask your local butcher where their meat is sourced from, how it is treated while it is alive and how it is processed afterward.
Another great place to find whole foods is in your weekly delivery box from Just Add Cooking. We source the freshest and most natural ingredients we can find so that what ends up on your dinner table is healthy, whole and delicious.
The basic message about eating whole foods is to help us pay attention to what we are eating and choose the most healthful, nutrient dense, natural foods. The goal is to have a balance of foods which nurture and nourish us, body and soul. An apple is a whole food. An apple turned into an apple crisp is a whole food as well. See? Balance.