Processed Food: What It Is, and Its Role in Our Food System

6 Things to keep in mind when it comes to buying or eating it.

We may hear “Don’t eat processed food” a lot these days, but in reality, that’s very hard, if not impossible to do. In fact, in many cases, it wouldn’t even be that healthy. That’s because there’s a lot of confusion over what processed food actually is. In this post, you’re going to get the answer to that question as well as 6 things to keep in mind when it comes to buying or eating it. 

Photos of pizza and soda and fresh vegetables and fruit as examples of processed food.
Pizza and soda photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

What is processed food?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, processed food is food that has undergone any changes to its natural state1. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health clarifies that means any washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging, or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state. It also includes adding salt, sugar, fat or other additives for preservation or for taste2

That means that even if we start out with fresh fruit or vegetables from the farmers’ market, the minute we wash, cut or chop them, we are processing them. This is food preparation at its most basic in one of its healthiest forms, but it’s processing, nonetheless.

In fact, the first food processing took place about two million years ago when cooking or heating over fire was discovered3. Later in prehistoric times, humans learned how to transform, preserve and store food safely through fermenting, drying and preserving with salt3. Since this is what allowed communities to form and survive, it seems that most of us could easily appreciate the concept and practice of food processing. 

In that case, what’s the fuss all about? The confusion comes over the different ways and degrees to which food is processed. 

Types of processed food

The NOVA classification system, which is recognized by the United Nations and the World Health Organization, breaks food processing down into four categories4. The following descriptions of each are taken from a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 

Unprocessed and minimally processed food4

Unprocessed or natural food is the edible part of plants (such as fruit, leaves, stems, seeds, roots) or from animals (such as muscle, offal, eggs, milk), and also fungi, algae and water, after separation from nature. 

Minimally processed food is natural food that is altered. This can be through the removal of inedible or unwanted parts, drying, crushing, grinding, powdering, fractioning, filtering, roasting, boiling, non-alcoholic fermentation, pasteurization, chilling, freezing, placing in containers and vacuum packaging. The difference between unprocessed and minimally processed is not considered to be significant, and for both, the nutritional content of the food has not been substantially changed from its natural state.

Processed culinary ingredients4

Processed culinary ingredients are usually derived from unprocessed and minimally processed foods or else from nature through pressing, refining, grinding, milling, and drying. These can include oils, butter, sugar and salt. Some methods used to make processed culinary ingredients are originally ancient, but now they’re usually produced through industrial methods. These ingredients are rarely consumed by themselves.

Processed food4

Processed food is made by adding salt, oil, sugar or other processed culinary ingredients to unprocessed and minimally processed food. This includes canned or bottled vegetables or legumes preserved in brine; whole fruit preserved in syrup; tinned fish preserved in oil; some types of processed animal foods such as ham, bacon, pastrami, and smoked fish; most freshly baked breads; and simple cheeses. Most processed foods have two or three ingredients and are recognizable as modified versions of unprocessed and minimally processed food. 

It’s important to note that even the dish that results from cooking at home using multiple natural food and culinary ingredients is a processed food. 

Ultra-processed food4

Ultra-processed food is made from ingredients that are usually created by a series of industrial techniques and processes. Some common ultra-processed products are carbonated soft drinks; sweet, fatty or salty packaged snacks; candies; mass-produced packaged breads and buns, cookies, pastries, cakes and cake mixes; margarine and other spreads; sweetened breakfast ‘cereals’ and fruit yogurt and “energy” drinks; pre-prepared meat, cheese, pasta and pizza dishes; poultry and fish “nuggets” and “sticks”; sausages, burgers, hot dogs and other reconstituted meat products; powdered and packaged “instant” soups, noodles and desserts; and baby formula.

The case for and against ultra-processed food

Breaking down these four categories makes it easy to see that when people say, “Don’t eat processed food,” what they really usually mean is “Don’t eat ultra-processed food.”  This is the category where we can get into the most trouble with our health. That’s because highly processed foods often contain more saturated fat, sugar and sodium than less-processed foods2.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that the systems and ingredients “used in the manufacture of ultra-processed foods make them highly convenient (ready-to-consume, almost imperishable) and highly attractive (hyper- palatable) for consumers, but they also make ultra-processed foods typically nutritionally unbalanced and liable to be over-consumed.” That’s not good because of their high content of ingredients that aren’t good for us. The more we eat of them, the less we’re eating of unprocessed, minimally processed and healthy processed food. 

Fortification with vitamins and minerals

While fortifying ultra-processed foods can be seen as a benefit, especially when access to nutritious food is limited, it’s important to understand why they need to be fortified in the first place. In many cases, the only reason that adding vitamins and minerals is needed is because the food wasn’t made from “real” ingredients in the first place or because they were stripped during processing. All that said though, if access to nutritious food is limited, fortified foods are definitely beneficial. 

Things to keep in mind

Here are some things to keep in mind when it comes to thinking about the role processed food plays in your life or the life of your family. 

  • Even when we’re talking about home-cooked meals made with multiple ingredients, we have to be careful when it comes to the processed culinary ingredients we use. Using too much sugar, salt and refined oils in our kitchen can be just as unhealthy as getting it from ultra-processed food. 
  • When cooking at home, look for recipes that contain primarily unprocessed or minimally processed ingredients.
  • When it comes to buying meat, especially deli meat, hot dogs, sausage, etc. look for a very simple and short ingredient list. The primary ingredient should be the meat itself with only a few other ingredients needed for preservation. It should not contain a lot of fillers or ingredients that you can’t pronounce. 
  • Don’t buy products that have a long list of ingredients that you can’t pronounce or don’t know what they are. You should know what every ingredient is that you’re putting into your body.
  • Shop the outside aisles of the grocery store as much as possible. That’s where the freshest and least processed items are found. Items on the inside aisles have the longest shelf life, which means they are more highly processed. The exception to this is what are considered staples such as brown rice, oats, legumes, and other foods that contain beneficial nutrients1
  • The way I think about it is that if I’m buying packaged food from the store, I look for products that contain 5 or fewer ingredients. If it has more, I have to recognize every ingredient listed.

Bottom line

The bottom line is that most of the food we eat is processed in some way. The degree to which it is and the amounts that we eat of more highly processed foods are the keys. While there are some health benefits to ultra-processed food, the general rule of thumb is always going to be to eat as much unprocessed and minimally processed food as possible. 

Sources

  1. Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/processed-foods/
  2. Poti, Jennifer M et al. The American journal of clinical nutrition. vol. 101,6 (2015): 1251-62. doi:10.3945/ajcn.114.100925 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4441809/#b1
  3. Floros, John D et al. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. August 2010. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1541-4337.2010.00127.x
  4. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/3/ca5644en/ca5644en.pdf


What is Functional Medicine?

Exploring Alternative Medical Care Options.

What is functional medicine, and is it right for you? If you’re exploring alternative medical care options, functional medicine is one system of care that you’ll at least want to look into. Monique Class, MS, APRN, BC is a board-certified family nurse practitioner and clinical nurse specialist in holistic health at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine. In this Q&A, she helps to shed light on what functional medicine is and why it’s been growing in popularity over the past nearly 20 years. 

Photos of a stethoscope wrapped around healthy food as well as weights and tennis shoes plus a photo of a woman cutting up healthy food as an example of functional medicine.

Peppermint Tea & Me: What is functional medicine?

Monique Class: Functional medicine is root cause medicine. I’m always looking for the cause to the symptomatology or to the diagnosis of the person sitting in front of me. In western medicine, ( I’m trained in both medicines), we’re trained to look for “What’s the diagnosis?” Give me this collection of symptoms and give me the diagnosis. in functional medicine, the training is, “What’s the root cause of these symptoms and this diagnosis?” What caused the dysfunction in the physiology? 

Monique Class, MS, APRN, BC

Another key thing is understanding that the body is made up of systems that communicate with each other. One system affects the other system. It’s understanding how different parts of the body influence other parts of the body and that it’s a network. Hormones influence the digestive system, and stress impacts the nervous system which impacts the digestive system and can be a root cause of many things. And long-term chronic stress turns on inflammation in the body that could turn on any inflammatory disease. So, it’s understanding how things are linked together and need to be unraveled. 

The third piece is that it’s patient-centered. It’s not protocol-driven. It’s individualized based on the patient. What is their belief system and what are they looking for? It’s looking at their story and their timeline in a useful way to see patterns and connections. We’re not trained to do that in western medicine. We’re trained to ask very specific questions to get very specific answers so we can get a diagnosis. We then give a protocol that everybody else with that diagnosis gets, so there’s no personalization of the medicine or deeper understanding of the human being. Functional medicine is understanding what gives our patients meaning and purpose and helping them make the right choices for their particular situation.

PTM: You can do all of that and still do all of the things that a conventional practitioner can do?

MC: Yes, and we do. Functional medicine includes conventional medicine. It’s not like you’re doing one or the other. Functional medicine expands on our knowledge base. It’s not throwing out conventional medicine. It’s embracing conventional medicine and then expanding it to look at other influences. We identify root causes and work with collaborative care teams to help change behavior. If you want to look at it this way, functional medicine is a panoramic view. What’s happening with traditional medicine is they’re looking at just that one snapshot, and they’re not looking at a panoramic view of things. 

PTM: You have certifications in imagery and meditation and mind- body medicine and yoga. What is imagery, and what is mind-body medicine?

MC: Mind-body medicine is really engaging the mind in the healing process and understanding how the mind influences the body and how the body influences the mind and getting people to understand that it’s all connected. it’s one big system. If you come in through the body, you’re influencing the mind. If you come in from the mind, you’re influencing the body. They’re intimately connected. It’s working with all of those dimensions and not just working with the body but engaging people’s mind.

Imaging is a way to get people in touch with the unconscious thoughts and images that are in their mind that drive choices one way or the other. It’s understanding what’s going through the mind stream and what the pictures are that people have attached to their thoughts. A lot of times, the images are all around negative things that are going to happen or past regrets that have happened, and people get stuck. You work with their images to help them create healing images that then drive the physiology. 

The research is there. One study had surgeons practice a specific surgery in their heads. They saw themselves doing it well with no complications. When you do that, you’re actually on a physical level. You’re priming those pathways and stimulating that neural plasticity for what you want to happen. For the surgeons who did that, their heart rate variability was more in coherence. They had less cortisol and were more focused. So that’s the end state imagery. It’s working with people to understand what their images are that they’re not even conscious of that are driving their fear and anxiety and then having them create new images. These new images begin to change thought patterns at the level of the mind and the unconscious mind.

 PTM: What is your general approach to using medication to treat illnesses or symptoms?

MC: I use it when I need to. It’s the wise use of medication in the right dose as a bridge, while you’re working on the lifestyle stuff. I’m looking to take them off medication once we get the rest of it, but I’m not afraid to use meds when I need to use meds. The conversation is, “We’re using this, we’re going to work on all this stuff and then we’re going to try to back down off of it.” If I don’t need it, I don’t go there first. Medication is a bridge. It’s not a permanent player if at all possible. 

PTM: Why did you decide to go into functional medicine?

MC: Functional Medicine was for me part of my larger vision of health. When I was looking at the way we were treating people in conventional medicine – both in the hospital and in the doctor’s office that I was working in – I felt like they weren’t getting better. We were just perpetuating a disease model. I wanted a model that worked higher upstream. A model that saw people as individuals and understood that the mind and the choices people make have a great influence on the body. If you work at the level of the mind and change the choices, you can reverse engineer complex chronic diseases. It’s very different than an attitude of “You’ve got this diagnosis, take this medication and see you later.” I wanted something more than that for myself and for my patients.

PTM: Do you ever find that patients or even other practitioners are skeptical of what you do?

MC: Not anymore. In the beginning, they didn’t understand what we were doing. Now, people are seeking us out. Functional medicine has really caught on among the lay public. People are finding us. We don’t have to advertise anymore. They’re coming to us because they want a functional medicine approach. We’re addressing them as human beings and finding out what’s meaningful to them and what they’re looking to achieve. We’re trying to help them with that in the gentlest way possible. 

PTM: Everything you’re describing sounds like it takes more than the 15 minutes allotted for conventional medicine. How does that work?

MC: We’re not in insurance anymore, but we did it for years. When we were in insurance, I would have people come back every two weeks for half an hour as we made needed lifestyle and behavior changes. Now, we are out of insurance, and we’re a fee for service. My first visit is about an hour and 15 minutes. Then we have follow-ups, and we work with coaches in our office to help coach people on behavior change. 

The model of utilizing collaborative care teams with coaches is used a lot. It’s focused on the care plan that the patient helps co-create with us as doctors based on their lab results, their symptoms, their individual stories and what their goals are. They then work with a team on these things and then loop back to me. It truly is a team approach. 

Important note about insurance and functional medicine

If you decide to work with a functional medicine provider, be sure and check with them on whether they accept insurance. If they don’t, and you’re planning to file your insurance yourself, check with your health insurance company about whether it covers the facility and type of program that you are considering. In addition, if you have a healthcare reimbursement account, you can also check to see if the services that you’re considering are covered by your plan. 


Seasonal Produce Spotlight: Health Benefits of Swiss Chard

Nutrition Information and How to Eat It.

For anyone trying to eat a lot of leafy greens, Swiss chard is a must. It can be eaten raw or cooked and is so packed with nutrients that it’s not only ranked as one of the healthiest greens, it’s considered to be one of the healthiest foods overall1. Here’s a look at the health benefits of Swiss chard, its nutrition information and some tips on how to eat it. 

Photo of Swiss chard

What is Swiss chard?

Swiss chard is a member of the Amaranthaceae plant family2, which also includes beets and spinach. It has beautiful colored stems that can be white, yellow, orange or various shades of red. Rainbow chard is simply different kinds bunched together.

Swiss chard was first traced to Sicily and is very popular with Mediterranean cooks3. According to the University of Illinois Extension’s Watch Your Garden Grow series, the word “Swiss” was “used to distinguish it from French charde by nineteenth century seed catalogues publishers and the name stuck3.”

Swiss chard generally grows when temperatures are a little cooler in the spring or fall, but The Old Farmer’s Almanac says that it’s very tolerant of hotter temperatures too4. That’s why you can find it at local farmers’ markets in the summer, even when it’s too hot for other greens. You can usually find it year-round in the refrigerated produce section at your grocery store. 

Nutrients in Swiss chard

The many health benefits of Swiss chard come from the fact that it’s packed with nutrients. Consequently, it ranks among the top five nutrient dense foods on Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI)1

Health benefits of Swiss chard

Swiss chard is high in antioxidants and is widely used as an antidiabetic in traditional medicine in many cultures around the world6,7,8,9.  One of the studies that looked at the antidiabetic properties also looked at the possible antibacterial activities of different extracts and isolated flavone C-glycoside compounds from Swiss chard leaves. Researchers found that the leaves can be used as “a natural source of antibiotic and hypoglycemic drugs8.” Still another study found that some of the phytochemicals in chard help to inhibit cancer cell growth and that extracts help treat high blood pressure9. All traits that make Swiss chard a truly functional food9

How to store and eat Swiss chard

Swiss chard should be eaten fairly soon after it’s bought. Because it’s highly perishable, storing it in the refrigerator is best. You’ll also want to wait to wash the leaves until you’re ready to use them.

You can store Swiss chard in a sealed refrigerator-safe bag for 2-3 days (although I’ve had it keep for as long as 7 days before and it still tasted perfectly fine.) You can also eat the stems. If they’re stored separately from the leaves, they’ll last longer. 

Swiss chard leaves taste a little earthy and are a great substitute for spinach. You can eat them either raw or cooked. I often include them with the kale in my smoothie just to add additional nutrients. The stems taste wonderful roasted with just olive oil, salt and pepper. 

Here are some of my favorite recipes that use Swiss chard:

Cost of Swiss chard

Swiss chard, like other leafy greens, is usually sprayed heavily with pesticides and fungicides. As a result, it’s best to buy organic if at all possible. The price I pay at the farmers’ market for organic is $3/bunch. That is cheaper than the $3.50-$3.75 that I would pay for conventional that the mainstream grocery store charges. Somewhat surprisingly, I can buy organic at Whole Foods for as little as $2.49. That’s cheaper than both the farmers’ market and the regular grocery store. No matter where you buy it, Swiss chard is an inexpensive way to add plenty of nutrients to any meal. 

Lean on your community

What is your favorite way to use Swiss chard? Be sure and let us know in the comments below. 

Sources

  1. Joel Fuhrman, MD. ANDI Food Scores: Rating the Nutrient Density of Foodshttps://www.drfuhrman.com/elearning/eat-to-live-blog/128/andi-food-scores-rating-the-nutrient-density-of-foods
  2. Food Source Information. Colorado Integrated Food Safety Center of Excellence. Swiss Chard. https://fsi.colostate.edu/swiss-chard/#zp-ID-4095-176389-KAQM9ISV
  3. University of Illinois Extension. Watch Your Garden Grow series. Chard. https://web.extension.illinois.edu/veggies/chard.cfm
  4. The Old Farmer’s Alamanac. https://www.almanac.com/plant/swiss-chard
  5. U.S. Department of Agriculture. FoodData Centralhttps://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/169991/nutrients
  6. Mzoughi Z, Chahdoura H, Chakroun Y, et al. Wild edible Swiss chard leaves (Beta vulgaris L. var. cicla): Nutritional, phytochemical composition and biological activities. Food Res Int. 2019;119:612-621. doi:10.1016/j.foodres.2018.10.039 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30884696/
  7. Sacan O, Yanardag R. Antioxidant and antiacetylcholinesterase activities of chard (Beta vulgaris L. var. cicla). Food Chem Toxicol. 2010;48(5):1275-1280. doi:10.1016/j.fct.2010.02.022 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20184938/
  8. Mohammed HS, Abdel-Aziz MM, Abu-Baker MS, Saad AM, Mohamed MA, Ghareeb MA. Antibacterial and Potential Antidiabetic Activities of Flavone C-glycosides Isolated from Beta vulgaris Subspecies cicla L. var. Flavescens (Amaranthaceae) Cultivated in Egypt. Curr Pharm Biotechnol. 2019;20(7):595-604. doi:10.2174/1389201020666190613161212 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31203800/
  9. Ninfali P, Angelino D. Nutritional and functional potential of Beta vulgaris cicla and rubra. Fitoterapia. 2013;89:188-199. doi:10.1016/j.fitote.2013.06.004 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23751216/


10 Tips for Shopping at the Farmers’ Market

How to Save Money and Time.

While shopping at the farmers’ market should be relaxed, if you’re serious about making it a part of your regular routine, you need to go in with a plan. This goes against what many people will tell you. They’ll tell you to just go, be spontaneous and see what you can find.

That’s great if you have all of the time in the world and already know how to cook with a variety of fresh produce. But if you’re trying to make eating local a regular part of your lifestyle, are usually busy on the weekends and need to keep it on a budget, you’re probably going to need to approach it a bit differently. As someone who can still remember my first trip to the farmers’ market and how I built those trips into being a regular part of my routine (even at its busiest), I wanted to share with you my 10 tips for shopping at the farmers’ market as well as how to save time and money while doing it. 

Photo of produce that you can buy when shopping at the farmers' market

1. Sign up for the market newsletter

You can do this through the market website. The newsletter should tell you about any policies or procedures that need to be followed, especially as they relate to our current health crisis. It will also list the produce or other products that each vendor will be bringing that week. In addition, if you’re new to eating local and with the seasons, looking at the vendors’ lists will help you to know what’s in season so that you know what to expect.

2. Find recipes that match what’s available that week

This way, you’re not just buying random items that you have no idea what you’re going to do with them once you get home. You have a plan. This is where some of the experimenting and adventure comes in with shopping at the farmers’ market. You can still branch out and try new recipes but going in knowing what you’re going to fix will give you more confidence to learn about and try different foods. 

3. Make a list for shopping at the farmers’ market

Don’t be surprised if shopping at the farmers’ market the first few times is a bit overwhelming. Making a list of the items you need based on what you’ve seen will be available and that you need for your specific recipes will help to make it less so. Many people will say not to go with a list or any expectation of what you’ll find. That’s so you can be more creative with what you do find, and you’ll be more adventurous. 

There’s a lot to be said for that. But, if the experience is too overwhelming or if you leave with a bunch of produce that you have no idea how to prepare and won’t have time to figure it out, going to the farmers’ market is not going to become a regular part of your lifestyle. 

As you make your list based on the vendor list in the newsletter, I also strongly recommend noting beside each item which vendor(s) will have it. This and just making a list in general will help you to be as efficient with your time as possible if you have to get your shopping trip in before heading off to a kid’s activity. 

Making a list doesn’t mean that you’re being too rigid. It means that you’re being intentional enough about the experience that you want it to be a success. 

4. Take your own bags

Whether you have re-usable bags that you can take, or old grocery store plastic bags, you’ll want to take your own bags when shopping at the farmers’ market. Some vendors offer plastic bags, but they’re usually only large enough for a few items. 

5. Go early

If you’re serious about eating local and making sure that you find the items that you need, you’ll want to be at the farmers’ market as close to when it opens as possible. This is especially true if you have somewhere else that you need to be fairly quickly. If a market is open during the winter, it usually opens at 9am. Summer through fall hours usually begin at 8am. Farmers’ market day is not the day to sleep in. 

6. Keep to your list

Yes, we’re back on the list. Keeping to your list will help to keep you on budget and will keep you from wasting a lot of produce that you don’t use. Trust me on this one. The pull of tables and stands full of fresh beautiful, colorful produce (especially during the summer) can be enticing. Your eyes will get way bigger than what’s good for your budget or for what you will actually use. 

Of course, there are exceptions to this. 

  • If it’s something that looks interesting to you, your budget has room for it and you know you’ll have time to experiment, then go for it. 
  • It’s an item that you love that wasn’t listed in the newsletter.
  • If you need to be flexible because something isn’t available, and you need to come up with another ingredient, main course or a side. 

7. Talk to the vendors

This is part of the whole point of shopping at the farmers’ market. You get to know the people who are growing your food and making the products that you buy. I truly consider the vendors at my farmers’ market as an important part of my community. At the beginning of the COVID crisis, when my favorite vendor had to miss a week, they were taking pre-orders for pickup at their farm, which is about 45 minutes from my house. I was willing to make the trip, but instead, she said, “You know what, my husband will be coming close to you anyway, let him bring your order to you.” When I protested, she said, “You always come to us. Let us come to you this time.” He came 10 minutes out of his way to leave my order on my porch. 

As another example, the vendors were very helpful with my older son when I had to send him to the market. I sent a list, but apparently, he was misreading a few things. When it was clear that he was shopping for someone else, they asked him who he was shopping for. He gave them my name, and they said, “Oh, this is what your mom usually gets.” You do not get that level of service from the farmer that you don’t get to talk to at the grocery store.

Another reason to talk to the vendors is if buying organic is important to you. Ask the farmers about their growing practices. Certification is expensive, and many farmers use organic or chemical-free practices, but they just aren’t certified. 

8. Note how much items cost

You can either make a quick note in your list of how much each item costs or take a picture of the price with your phone. This will help you as you budget and plan your meals and other shopping in the future.

I choose to do as much of my family’s food shopping at the farmers’ market as much as possible, but I still have to stay within a budget. I make it work by staying within the allotted amount that I have to spend and through buying paper products and other non-food items through Amazon, Sam’s, Walmart or Target.

9. See if the farm does pre-orders

If you know that you’re going to be crunched for time one week, see if the vendors do pre-orders for pickup at the market. This will save you time because all you have to do is walk up and pick it up. Many vendors that used to not do pre-orders are doing them now because they had to start doing it during the COVID crisis. 

10. Wash and store your items as soon as you get home

Washing your produce and storing it in an appropriate way as soon as you get home will make sure that it stays as fresh as possible and is ready to go when you need it. If you have the time, I recommend going ahead and slicing or chopping the produce into the size and amounts that you’ll need for your recipes right after you get everything put away or later that same day. That will make it much easier and less overwhelming when it comes time to make the recipes that you planned and will help to make sure that your food is actually used. 

Most importantly when you go shopping at the farmers’ market – have fun! If you do have time to be more relaxed and simply explore, be sure and look around, talk to the farmers and other vendors and see where you might want to go back to next week. Following the tips that I give here isn’t meant to take away from the farmers’ market experience. These tips are meant to help you see how doable it really is as part of your regular routine. Some days you’ll be able to be more relaxed, other days, you’re simply trying to get your healthy, local food and still get to your kid’s baseball game on time. Both experiences are equally real and are what shopping at the farmers’ market is all about. 

Lean on your community

Do you shop at the farmers’ market regularly? If not, tell us why in the comments below. If so, we’d love to hear from you on how you make that happen.


Money Saving Tip: Freezing Bananas

How to Save Money and Reduce Waste by Freezing Them.

Let’s be honest, no one likes to eat an even sort of mushy banana. BUT! There’s still so much that you can do with ripe bananas, and it’s a shame to let them go to waste. That’s true from both a food waste and money-saving perspective. By freezing bananas, you can save what you might normally throw away and use another day. 

Photo of ripe bananas with brown spots as example of how freezing bananas can reduce waste and save money

What to Do with Frozen Bananas

My favorite way of using frozen bananas is to put them in smoothies. In fact, I prefer them in my smoothie. They give it a thicker and creamier consistency, which I love. 

You can also use frozen bananas for baking, and we’re not just talking about banana bread.  You can use them in pancakes, cookies, muffins, cakes and the list goes on. If you’re looking for ideas on how to bake with bananas, Crazy for Crust offers 66 Banana Recipes that give some delicious options. 

Bananas can also be used as a substitute for the following in baking:

  • Fats such as butter or oils (I cup of mashed banana for 1 cup of the butter or oil)
  • Eggs (1/4 cup of banana puree = 1 egg) ***frozen bananas need to be thawed
  • Sugar (1 cup mashed banana = 1 cup sugar) *** frozen bananas need to be thawed

How to Freeze Bananas

Now that we’ve established that freezing bananas is a good thing to do, let’s get to how you do it. Bananas are best to freeze when they’re starting to turn brown and are a little softer but not too mushy. That said, I’ve frozen many a mushy one, and they turned out fine. Remember, the riper the banana, the sweeter it is.  

You have a few choices as to what form you freeze bananas in after you peel them.

Option 1: The whole banana. Good for smoothies. 

Option 2: Cut the banana in half. Good for smoothies. Since I only use half a banana in my smoothies, this is my preferred way to do it. 

Option 3: Cut the banana into slices. Good for baking. 

Freezing the whole banana or halves

Photo of freezing bananas
  1. Peel the banana.

2. Cut if you’re halving and put them into freezer bags.

3. Put the bag of bananas into the freezer. 

Freezing banana slices

Photo of sliced bananas for freezing bananas
  1. Peel the banana.

2. Slice bananas so that they’re ¼-inch to ½-inch thick.

3. Lay banana slices flat on a cookie sheet. I usually just put them straight onto the cookie sheet, but if you’d prefer to cover the sheet with parchment paper, that works as well.  

4. Put the baking sheet into the freezer. Two hours is plenty of time for the bananas to become solid. 

5. Put the slices into a freezer bag. 

For both of these methods, it’s best to label your freezer bags with the date. Frozen bananas are best used within 6 months. 


Seasonal Produce Spotlight: Benefits of Dill

How to Eat Dill and How Much it Costs.

You may be most familiar with dill as what gives many sauces and dressings their distinctive flavor, but did you know that it’s often used for medicinal purposes as well? That’s because it’s packed with nutrients, and the potential health benefits of dill are many. For that reason, we’re going to look at what dill is, why it’s so good for us, how to eat it and how much it costs. 

Photo of dill on a cutting board as an example of the benefits of dill
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What is Integrative Medicine?

Find Out Whether Integrative Medicine Might or Might Not be Right For You.

Have you found yourself increasingly frustrated by conventional or Western medicine, but you don’t know whether you want to completely turn to alternative options either? If that’s the case, you may want to explore integrative medicine. Julie McGregor, MD is a board-certified internist and nephrologist trained in integrative medicine who works with the Integrative Medical Clinic of North Carolina. She explains in this Q&A what integrative medicine is and offers information that may help you decide whether it might or might not be right for you. 

Photo of stacked stones as example of integrative medicine

Peppermint Tea & Me: What is integrative medicine?

Julie McGregor: It’s really about trying to blend any component of wellness or healing or disease treatment or prevention into an individualized approach for any given person. So, it’s trying to use the best of all the different worlds that are out there with healing and wellness to approach optimizing somebody’s health in an individualized plan. 

PTM: How do you feel like that’s different from conventional medicine?

Julie McGregor, MD

Julie McGregor: It’s really about trying to blend any component of wellness or healing or disease treatment or prevention into an individualized approach for any given person. So, it’s trying to use the best of all the different worlds that are out there with healing and wellness to approach optimizing somebody’s health in an individualized plan. 

Sometimes, there may be healing that is achieved from a lot of different modalities that are traditional – like Chinese medicine, or yogic tradition, or nutritional healing and that kind of thing. Integrative Medicine tries to hold space for those types of modalities in addition to pharmaceuticals or surgery. It’s not just doing alternative, and it’s also not just doing Western conventional medicine. It’s trying to use what’s best from all of that in helping a person achieve wellness or avoid disease through whatever means makes the most sense for that person. 

PTM: Your practice’s website says that you focus on the integration of complementary medicine with gold-standard medicine and specialty training. What exactly does that mean?

JM: It’s basically honoring that trying to avoid side effects or pharmaceuticals may be the best course for any patient. But, if a person has the need for pharmaceuticals or has an illness that is requiring of a specialized intervention, our clinic has the training to take care of illnesses in the Western or conventional approach. We’ve really focused our whole careers on how to use medicines and how to appropriately care for people in a medical setting, but we also have a focus on trying to be as holistic and non-pharmaceutical and open to all kinds of healing. 

What we’re saying is that if somebody came in and needed an approach to a serious medical condition, we feel completely comfortable doing that. At the same time, if a person came in and said, “I absolutely don’t want to be on a medicine, and I want to stay well without pharmaceuticals,” we feel completely comfortable aligning with that person and trying to help them on their wellness path. 

For most of the rest of us, who are kind of in between, who want to avoid medicines when possible but are open to using the best of pharmaceuticals or Western medicine if necessary, we feel comfortable in that journey with them as well. All of this feels really comfortable to us because of doing a broad range of training. All of our providers have been in the western medicine, conventional medicine tertiary medical centers for most of our training, so we don’t feel like we’re alternative providers but at the same time, we’re very open to a holistic or alternative approach for people who want to do it that way.

PTM: Do you ever find that people are skeptical about your approach?

JM: I think a lot of the people who come to us are looking for that kind of blend. I do have a number of patients who want to turn to the pharmaceutical route first, and that’s fine. Then I do have some people who absolutely really don’t want to be on medicine. They want to have me there telling them whether they’re making safe choices with their herbs. I’m fine with that too. 

For the most part, I think people are really open to combining all the different types of health and wellness ideals and a lot of my folks in our clinic have a multiple provider team. They may have a chiropractor, an acupuncturist, a physician, a wellness coach, and a nutritionist. That’s a lot of people weighing in. Our goal is to have mutual respect among all the different providers so that patients don’t feel like there’s a conflict between what one person is suggesting and what another person is suggesting. Unless we really see there’s a danger, and of course, we would speak up about that.

PTM: Is a team approach to healing and wellness part of the integrative medicine model?

JM: We do try in integrative medicine to have a connection with a lot of different types of providers. I will communicate with chiropractors, naturopaths, Chinese medicine providers, and shamans. All different types of healers. I’ll do that as much as I will with a hematologist or a gastroenterologist or a cardiologist or a neurologist. So, I think, integrative medicine is very much about a team approach. 

I don’t know how to do acupuncture, I am definitely not an herbalist, and I haven’t had formal nutritional training. I rely a lot on the expertise of people who are holistic providers and would definitely say that integrative medicine is about connection and about teams and about honoring a lot of healing modalities.

PTM: Your foundational training was very much in conventional medicine. Why did you decide to go in this direction?

JM: I was raised by a registered nurse who was involved with an obstetrician who worked under the focus of Dr. Christiane Northrup. Dr. Northrup wrote a book called Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. That’s how my mom sort of approached health and wellness with me. 

When I went to medical school, I had the idea that spirituality, emotional health and wellness, alignment and balance and nutrition would be how my career would progress. In western medicine training though, wellness, and nutrition and spirituality and emotion aren’t really the focus. It’s very comfortable actually. It’s hard, hard work to be in medicine, but at the same time, there’s a comfort that comes from doing this protocolized research-proven approach. I personally had a lot of interest in health, wellness, alternative medicine, spirituality and all of these things. But mentally, I had a lot of comfort with approaching medicine through conventional medicine and that scientific sort of western mentality. 

By my early 40s, I realized that I was approaching medicine in a way that I probably wouldn’t do for myself and wouldn’t suggest for my family. I was in dialysis care and prescribing a lot of chemotherapy for patients that had vasculitis and autoimmune disease. I loved what I was doing, but I didn’t have a lot of authenticity about what I was recommending to my patients because I probably wouldn’t have been making a lot of those choices if I was in their position. So, I came to this realization that I wanted the rest of my career to be in alignment with how I would approach health and wellness if I was the person that I was talking to. 

PTM: Was that a difficult shift to make?

JM: It required me making a big shift in my career trajectory. Not that I was neglecting everything that I had learned. I was actually happy to have been trained the way I was. incorporating more of the holistic and wellness that I honored in my own life and through my own family with my patient care was a shift away from conventional tried and true approaches. It was more of a vulnerable space of let’s partner together and find what works for you as an individual using all that we know about all of these different modalities. 

PTM: When might someone want to consider seeing an integrative medicine practitioner?

JM: There are some people who come to integrative medicine just because they’re looking for a primary care provider, and they like the idea of sort of being more natural or holistic as a first line. Some people come to integrative medicine because they actually really prefer naturopaths or Chinese medicine or chiropractic care but want to have an MD involved for just making sure that they have a doctor on record as part of their team. 

And then for other people, integrative medicine is just sort of how they have been living. They’ve been holistic, or Mind-Body connected or nutritionally focused or found through their own just trial and error that using food as medicine really resonated with them. When they go to their doctor, they don’t feel like those choices for their health are as respected or as honored as they want them to be. They will come to integrative medicine because they’ve sort of found that path for themselves and they’re looking for resonance.

Important Note About Insurance and Integrative Medicine

If you decide to work with an integrative medicine practitioner, check with your health insurance provider about whether it covers specific recommended therapies. Some therapies are covered by some providers, others are not. In addition, if you have a healthcare reimbursement account, you can check to see if the therapies that you’re considering are covered by that plan. 


Money Saving Tip: Avoid Grocery Shopping Hungry

How Grocery Shopping Hungry Can Cost More and Result in Poor Food Choices.

Avoid grocery shopping hungry. This healthy money saving tip is fairly obvious, but, we sometimes need reminding of the obvious. I know I do. How many times have I gotten to the second store when grocery shopping and realized that I’m suddenly hungry? My last meal was several hours before, and now I’m needing a snack. I convince myself that I can power through this last store and that I will eat one of my delicious crunchy apples when I get home.

Needless to say, the thoughts of the apple become less sustaining as I work my way down the aisles. Before I know it, my cart is filled with far more than what’s on my grocery list – much of which is not healthy in the least. Now I’m not only making poor food choices, I’m going to be paying for my lack of foresight with my wallet and my health. Most people can relate at one time or another, which is why we’re focusing on why we shouldn’t go grocery shopping hungry. 

Photo of chips on shelves as an example of grocery shopping hungry

Grocery Shopping Hungry Costs More

Coming out of the store with more food than we intend when we go grocery shopping hungry makes sense. A 2018 study published in the journal NeuroImage set out to figure out why “The abundant exposure to food cues in our environment is one of the main drivers of overconsumption.” Participants were shown images of low and high calorie food when they hadn’t eaten and were hungry and when they had eaten and weren’t hungry. The study found that hunger induced greater brain activity while looking at images of high calorie foods than looking at the same images when the participants weren’t hungry. While more research needs to be done on how we act on this increased brain activity, the study clearly shows that our brain probably reacts differently when we’re surrounded by high calorie foods when we’re hungry. 

What I’ve found for me is this means that I’ll still put the healthy foods into my basket that I was planning on getting, but if I’m hungry, I’m also going to add in unhealthy, highly-processed, high calorie foods that I wasn’t planning on getting. I can easily add $10-$20 or more to my grocery bill in this way. 

Grocery Shopping Hungry Can Result in Poor Food Choices

The unhealthy, highly-processed, high calorie foods that I buy if I’m grocery shopping hungry are far different than what I would buy otherwise. If I’m hungry, I’ll go for the ready-made simple carbohydrates that will fill me up quickly and that will give me that quick energy boost. We’re talking chips, crackers and sometimes even cookies. In fact, the only time that I give the packages of Fudge Stripes a second glance these days is when I’m grocery shopping hungry. That’s a once beloved food that I no longer even want, except in this case. 

I want something that I can open as soon as I get back in the car, or if I’m really hungry, that I’ll open and eat as I finish my shopping. Very rarely do I rip open the bag of baby carrots and munch my way through the store if I’m hungry. 

Tips for Avoiding Grocery Shopping Hungry

So how can we avoid grocery shopping hungry? Here are some tips based on what I’ve found that works. 

  1. If you have multiple stops to make, take a snack with you. This could be a piece of fruit, some cut up vegetables or even a healthy-ish muffin. This way, you can sit in the car between stops and snack before you head in to the next store. If you know that you tend to get hungry at some point while you’re shopping, it’s important that you eat your snack whether you’re hungry or not. Going ahead and eating it will help prevent you from getting hungry. If you wait until you are hungry, it may be too late. What you brought may not seem appealing. 
  2. Eat a snack or meal at home before you shop. This means within 15-30 minutes of walking out the door. That way, you can make it through 2-3 stops at different stores.
  3. Take a water bottle with you to shop. Drinking water helps you to feel more full. If you sip on it as you’re going through the store, you can more easily keep your stomach and your brain satisfied. That will help you to pass by what might otherwise be tempting unhealthy choices. 

Being aware of the budgetary and health impacts of grocery shopping hungry can go a long way to making sure that you get in and out with the healthy foods that you had planned on and that there’s not a lot of unhealthy impulse buying along the way. 

Lean on Your Community

Do you have any other tricks for not grocery shopping hungry? If so, please share them in the comments below. 


Seasonal Produce Spotlight: Health Benefits of Bok Choy

If you’ve seen bok choy at the grocery store or farmer’s market but have never tried it, you’re in for a treat. But before you try it, you should know what the health benefits of bok choy are; why it’s a good, budget-friendly vegetable; and how to eat it. 

Photo of bok choy to show the health benefits of bok ahoy

What is Bok Choy?

Bok choy is also known as pak choi or pok choi and is a type of Chinese cabbage. It’s a leafy green that’s part of the cruciferous family of vegetables. Cruciferous vegetables also include broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, and collard greens. 

Bok choy is a cooler season vegetable, so it’s in season in the spring and early summer and in the fall. It has a mild taste and both the leaves and stalks can be eaten. 

If you see it listed as baby bok choy, Gardening Know How1 explains that this just means that it was harvested earlier, so the leaves are small and tender. Baby bok choy is usually sweeter than regular-sized bok choy. 

Nutrients in Bok Choy

No matter the size, the health benefits of bok choy are numerous. It’s low in calories and is packed with the all-important Vitamins A, C and K. 

Health Benefits of Bok Choy

The health benefits of bok choy stem from all of the nutrients it contains. Its high level of Vitamin C acts as an antioxidant, helps wounds to heal through its ability to make collagen and helps the immune system to work properly3. Vitamin K found in bok choy helps with blood clotting and bone growth4. And the Vitamin A is important for vision, immune function, reproduction and cellular communication5

Bok choy and other cruciferous vegetables are also being looked at by cancer researchers because they contain a group of sulfur-containing chemicals that may help to prevent cancer6. In addition, in 2014, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that bok choy ranks second in nutrient density out of 41 Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables. Watercress was first with a score of 100, bok choy came second with a score of 91.99, and chard was third with a score of 89.277.

How to Store and Prepare Bok Choy

Bok choy does not keep well for a long time, so the best way to store it is in the refrigerator. I’ve found that putting it in a gallon baggie with another baggie covering it from the other end keeps it fresh for the longest amount of time. It should be used within 3-5 days. 

Bok choy can be eaten raw, steamed or in a stir-fry. When I use it in a stir-fry, I include the stalks with the vegetables that take longer to cook and then add the leaves at the last minute. Bok choy can also be substituted for cabbage in most recipes.

Here are several of my favorite bok choy recipes:

Cost of Bok Choy

Bok choy is very affordable. Since very few pesticides are used on it, it’s not necessary to buy it organic. Even if you do go for the organic version though, the price is very reasonable for the amount of food that it provides. 

The price of bok choy usually ranges from $1.35 for conventionally grown to $3.50 for organic. 

Lean on Your Community

Have you tried bok choy? If so, be sure and let us know in the comments below how you like to fix it. 

Sources:

  1. Gardening Know How. https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/vegetables/bok-choy/what-is-baby-bok-choy.htm
  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/168390/nutrients
  3. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin C. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-Consumer/
  4. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin K.  https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Vitamink-HealthProfessional/
  5. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin A. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminA-HealthProfessional/
  6. National Cancer Institute. Cruciferous Vegetables and Cancer Prevention. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet/cruciferous-vegetables-fact-sheet
  7. Di Noia J. Defining Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables: A Nutrient Density Approach. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prev Chronic Dis 2014;11:130390. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5888/pcd11.130390


Healthy and Fun Day Trip Ideas

6 Tips for Taking Budget-Friendly Day Trips.

For many families, summer vacation will look much different this year than it may have in the past. I know that will be the case for my family. Because of budget constraints, safety concerns and not knowing what will be open when, planning for our vacation came to a screeching halt months ago. But now that things are opening back up, I know that we will need a change of scenery at some point this summer. That’s why we’ll be taking short trips – to break things up a bit and to discover more of the state we’re in. With gas prices lower this summer than they’ve been in a long time, road trips are going to be key for us. Here are some of the healthy and fun day trip ideas that we’re going to be following to keep our excursions budget-friendly and sanity-saving.

Photo of waterfall as an example of healthy and fun day trip ideas

1. Develop a Day Trip Budget for the Summer 

Deciding on what your vacation spending can look like is a good idea anytime but especially right now. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be spontaneous, but it does mean that you have a good idea of what is realistic for you without putting too much of a strain on things once the trip is over. If you begin by figuring out how much you can spend for the summer, you’ll know the types of activities that might be a possibility when you’re thinking about your day trip ideas.

Some of the things that you may want to think about for budgeting purposes include the following:

  • If you’re going fishing, do you need to invest in new rods, fishing licenses or any other equipment?
  • Will you need to pay entrance or other fees for any of the activities that you’re doing?
  • Will boat or any other type of rentals be involved?
  • How much gas is needed and what will that cost? (It’s probably best to assume a cent or two increase from current prices.)
  • What food and other supplies might be needed?
  • If you’re going somewhere to go shopping, should that cost be included in your trip budget or is that accounted for somewhere else?

2. Plan For When Day Trips Are Going to Happen

I don’t know about you, but my family is very guilty of starting out the beginning of every summer by vowing to “take a day here and there” to go do something different and fun. While we usually get a week-long vacation in, the shorter trips rarely happen. That’s because we don’t plan for them. We let the weeks slip by, and if day trips aren’t scheduled in, the summer is gone before we know it.

Deciding on the types of places that you want to go will also help in figuring out whether you’re going to go on a weekend or if you’re going to take a day during the week. At a time when social distancing is still very important, that could be an important factor in what you want to do and what you’re able to do. Once you’ve decided when you want to go, put those days on the calendar so that everyone can schedule their work and other activities accordingly.

3. Day Trip Ideas in Your State

Coming out of the recent crisis, travel writer Sonja Hoyt from over at The Happy Travel Bug believes that it’s best to start with small road trips in your state. She says this is “a really good opportunity to learn about your home state and all it has to offer.” If you don’t know where to start with that, simply do an internet search for “the best hidden things to do” in your state. This will more than likely give you a list of things to do or see that may be more on the absurd or novelty side or that may include hidden historic treasures that you didn’t even know were there.

I’m using the results from this search to combine things that are in similar areas of the state so that we can devote a day here and there throughout the summer to exploring as many of the sites as possible in each area. I’m also finding other things to do in those areas so that we can pack as much into one day as possible. Other good internet searches to get day trip ideas include “day trips near me” and “fun day trips near me.”

4. Learn About the Sites or Areas That You’ll be Going To

There’s no doubt that you’ll get more out of your day trips if you take the time to learn about the places you’ll be going to or what you’ll be seeing or doing. This also lets you build a sense of anticipation so that you can reap many of the same mental benefits from traveling as you would if you were taking a larger trip. In addition, it gives you time to figure out whether there are related activities that you would be able to do that would enhance the experience even more. We’re talking about the kinds of things that when you get somewhere, you might say, “I wish I had known because we could have done…”

5. Pack Healthy Food and Snacks

One of the many wonderful things about a good day trip is that you can control what you eat. Packing a cooler full of healthy food and a bag of good snacks is very doable. Yes, you’ll probably want to throw in some extra special items, whether it’s packing them in what you take or allowing for a stop at a local ice cream shop or other type of well-known local place to eat. But at least you won’t have to rely on convenience stores and fast food for everything.

In fact, taking your own food gives you a lot more flexibility. You don’t have to stop what you’re doing if someone gets hungry, you have more options for being able to take advantage of surprise picnic spots or parks that you may find along the way, and you don’t lose time by having to look for just anywhere to eat.

Packing relatively healthy foods also makes sure that everyone has the energy they need to be able to enjoy the day and that no one feels “icky” after it’s over.

6. Explore Your City

Sometimes we get so busy traveling to other places that we forget to explore what’s in our own backyard. This is the perfect summer to play tourist in your own town or city. Focus your day trip on the things around you where you’ve always said, “We need to do that” or “We need to go there sometime.” Finding the hidden and no-so-hidden treasures near you will help you appreciate where you live all the more.

Budget Benefits of Day Trips

In addition to helping you design fun experiences, these day trip ideas will also be much easier on your budget. With gas prices as low as they are, being able to pack your own food instead of having to buy it all on the road, potentially doing activities that are free or cost much less and not having to stay somewhere overnight, the cost savings are enormous. That’s something that we could all benefit from right now as we navigate the lingering unknowns of our current crisis.

Just because this summer’s travel may look different than what we’ve done before, doesn’t mean we can’t create memories. In fact, “the summer of day trips,” may just be a time that your family talks about fondly for the rest of your lives.