Foods for thought

Trying to avoid "processed" and seeking "super" foods? Holding out for "whole" grains, "local" foods and "natural" ingredients? There are many popular terms we use to describe the foods we eat that beg for a better definition. Baking bread, making yogurt, harvesting honey and turning cucumbers into pickles all require a process. So, you can see throwing out the term "processed" to refer to foods that are perceived to be "unhealthy" doesn't always apply.

In fact, certain food production processes can actually boost nutritional content such as adding calcium to orange juice or whole grains to pasta. Other processes such as freezing vegetables help to preserve vitamin content at the time of harvest.

Localize and Recognize

The merits of eating locally grown foods are many, including supporting farmers, enjoying just-picked produce and reducing the carbon footprint of food distribution. But, Julie Miller Jones, Ph.D, professor of foods and nutrition at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., says, "There's a reason consuming a variety of foods is important for good health and that includes foods from a variety of regions. If you only eat locally grown foods there's a risk that you may be missing nutrients not available in the soil where they are grown. For instance, I live in an area of the country where there is very little iodine in the soil. It's known as the 'goiter belt' because of a long history of iodine deficiency." Jones says the introduction of iodized salt as a public health measure in mid-1920s helped prevent goiter so she's concerned about folks today totally switching to sea salt. "If you avoid iodized salt and eat only locally grown foods in the northern states it's a disaster waiting to happen." Soils in the southeastern U.S. are often low in the mineral selenium, an antioxidant important for good health, so eating foods grown in other regions can help fill in the gap.

Just saying

Natural — "Poorly defined," Jones says. "It can really be misused. It implies safety but not necessarily. Rat poison is made with clover extract, which is a naturally occurring blood thinner."

Clean — A term often implying a food product or restaurant dish has very few ingredients. Jones argues that additional ingredients can improve a food's health profile, "If we add more of an oat fiber called beta-glucans to oatmeal and other foods we can double the cholesterol lowering power."

Super — Many fruits such as acai berry, pomegranate and blueberry have been anointed with super nutrition status. But Jones says variety is still better: "If you ate two to three servings of blueberries you wouldn't be as well-nourished as eating a variety of fruit. Peaches are higher in beta-carotene and blueberries higher in antioxidants."