Fresh versus Processed Foods

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When as a caregiver or senior you plan daily menus, be sure to include all sources of healthy eating. That includes lean protein from seafood, eggs, and beans; assorted fruits and vegetables; whole-grain breads, pastas, and cereals; and low-fat dairy products. And to promote the healthiest diet — and to keep meals budgets friendly — use the freshest ingredients possible.

But the average food shopper often does not understand the difference between fresh foods and processed foods. Certainly, the issue can be confusing. Why? Because the sources — food marketing agents, the media, scientists, and medical professions, to name a few — send out conflicting messages of what markets sell and what the best foods people should eat, especially seniors.

Defining Fresh and Processed Foods

What is fresh food? The term refers to an ingredient in its raw, natural state. As, for example, containers of fresh berries or stacks of seasonal apples. The food has not been cooked, frozen, dehydrated, salted, canned, smoked, or in any way changed from its original status. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the term “fresh food” means the following: “The term ‘fresh,’ when used on the label or in labeling of a food in a manner that suggests or implies that the food is unprocessed, means that the food is in its raw state and has not been frozen or subjected to any form of thermal processing or any other form of preservation,” except in certain circumstances.

Fresh-food advocates shop for ingredients that may be locally sourced, or just-picked and sold at farmers’ markets, or are labeled as fresh — these are esteemed as the best foods to eat. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, all plants — vegetables and fruits — should grow in a dark soil rich in the primary nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

Processed foods are all those that have undergone some change from their fresh-picked or fresh-fed natural state. That includes any ingredient — from chickens being plucked and readied for market, to spinach rinsed and bagged for sale, to eggs being fried in butter for a snappy breakfast, to grains for cereals and baked goods that are refined. Food processing of any kind changes ingredients to make them available for people to eat.

Consumers should also realize that as soon as fruits or vegetables are picked, they begin to lose nutrients. That’s why consumers may actually profit nutritionally by eating frozen food — though technically frozen foods qualify as processed. Most processors allow produce to fully ripen and freeze fruits and vegetables shortly after harvesting, thus retaining their natural nutrients. According to the Legal Information Institute of Cornell University, the terms “fresh frozen” and “frozen fresh” are interchangeable because they both mean that just-harvested food is immediately frozen.

But fresh-food proponents point out that some food manufacturers print labels that hide added ingredients, such as sugar, salt, sodium, preservatives, and other ingredients that may add color or flavor. Manufacturers also use such add-ons as saturated fats that prolong the shelf life of their product. In some cases, the FDA has taken action on false labeling, setting up standards that manufacturers must follow to identify many kinds of food.

Healthy Eating for Seniors

Nutritionists agree that for all people, young or old, eating a variety of foods that are wholesome and in a natural state provides the best health. In other words, for optimum health, replace processed/artificial foods with whole and natural foods. This is particularly true for seniors, who should structure their daily diet on nutrient-dense foods. “To eat well, it’s best to choose a mix of nutrient-dense foods every day. Nutrient-dense foods are foods that have a lot of nutrients but relatively few calories. Look for foods that contain vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats,” reports the NIHSeniorHealth.

Their report stresses that a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and grains provides the basic phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, and fiber need to sustain good health and these foods help keep the calorie count lower than consuming processed, fat- and carbohydrate-rich foods. In addition, these foods have little fat and no added sugar, which helps to avoid heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. And as for grains, the report also differentiates between whole grains — which retain natural fibers and nutrients — versus refined grains, that after processing lack the same basic — and necessary — nutrients and fibers.

Unless seniors are lactose intolerant, they should consume about one cup daily of dairy products, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and kefir. These products are generally rich in calcium and Vitamin D, both of which are key to maintaining sturdy bones.

The NIH research also emphasizes that, to maintain muscle health, seniors need to consume a variety of proteins from seafood, meats, and legumes, such as peas, nuts, tofu, and beans. And seniors should include polyunsaturated and monosaturated fats from vegetable oils, seafood, nuts, and even avocados that help to maintain healthy organs.

As a guide for healthy eating for seniors, the United States Department of Agriculture has created the Choose My Plate Plan and an illustrated daily food plan that shows seniors how to structure their meals to include the best source of nutrients — this simplifies how to understand the five basic food groups that build good health. It also provides recipes that seniors and their caretakers should explore.

In the end, of course, food choices are up to each person to make. But to improve or to maintain someone’s health, caregivers should provide seniors with a well-balanced diet with ample proteins, vegetables, fruits, grains, and dairy products. That is key to helping a person stay alive and well.

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