It's a question of apples versus applesauce, oranges versus orange juice.
Most of us eat "whole foods," but some of us likely can't define a term that in recent years has peppered conversations about diet, health and nutrition. (Yes, pepper is a whole food.)
"Whole food is so simple," says Mary Shaw, culinary educator at Ashland Food Co-op. "It's the food that people everywhere on the planet ate before technology."
Since the advent of food science, Americans' meals have become more and more processed. Nutrition information moved beyond vitamins and minerals into transfat and cholesterol. And the names of ingredients have become harder to decipher, even harder to pronounce.
"When you go into the grocery store, so many of the foods are in packages," says Nicole Hanks, registered dietitian and diabetes educator at the Asante outpatient nutrition center in Medford.
"A lot of patients bring their packages to their appointments with me," she says, adding that people want to know whether a food is healthful.
Instead of trying to translate the label into layman's terms, Hanks suggests an alternative — one without all the packaging, numbers and unfamiliar words.
"Fruit makes a good snack."
But whole foods aren't found just in the produce department. Beans, nuts, whole grains, eggs, unprocessed meats, milk and even fermented dairy products like yogurt and cheese are whole foods. A dish may contain many ingredients, all of which can be whole, Shaw says. And a food can take many forms and still remain whole, she adds.
To drive the point home, Shaw uses corn as an example in one of her Co-op demonstrations. Corn can be eaten fresh, of course, on or off the cob. Kernels dried, the corn remains a whole food, and even ground into meal, it doesn't lose that distinction.
But Shaw can't change the corn's structure any further without the equipment used by major food manufacturers. To show the final steps in corn's processing, she has to pluck corn starch and corn syrup off the Co-op's shelves. Customers assume that because both products are certified organic, they must be healthful, Shaw says.
"Things can be natural, and things can be certified organic and still not be whole," she says. "In some ways, it may even be more confusing at the Co-op."
Although the nationwide expansion of Texas-based Whole Foods Market, starting in the late 1980s, certainly popularized its namesake phrase, Shaw says the more recent movement to eat locally produced foods has distilled the buzzword into the essence of sweet summer berries or silky winter squash.
"Local, whole food tastes like it's supposed to," Shaw says.
A wider spectrum of flavors is the reward for eating whole foods in lieu of the mind-boggling array of processed foods, nearly all of which incorporate a short list of chemical flavorings, colorings and preservatives, Shaw says. When those additives are subtracted from the diet, it's called "eating clean," says registered dietitian Cathy Miller, a public health educator for Providence Medford Medical Center.
Because most of her patients aren't familiar with the concept of a whole-foods diet, Miller takes a back-door approach, advocating more fruits and vegetables — even canned or frozen — which leaves less room in a meal for processed meats and starches, she says.
"It kind of takes care of itself," she says. "If they eat more fruits and vegetables, they're automatically eating less of the other stuff."
While most patients' chronic illnesses require Miller to draft improved diets, whole foods, Shaw says, shouldn't be considered the next nutrition trend or reactionary regimen that Americans so often employ.
"We have all these special diets," she says. "Just don't use the diet word with it."
"It isn't the diet at all; it's the food."