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How Unprocessed Do We Need to Be?

First things first: I’m not one of those dietitians who hates all processed foods—you won’t find me proclaiming the evils of food processing from the aisles of the local Whole Foods or farmer’s market. Nevertheless, I was intrigued enough by the concept to purchase and read Megan Kimble’s Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food...

And it confirmed what I thought already: striving to eat a completely unprocessed diet is ridiculous. At least for me it is. Reading Megan’s account of her attempts in this regard, however, were interesting, informative and entertaining. But, it left me shaking my head and wondering what the point really was, in the long run—especially because not all types of processing render the food overly-handled, devoid of nutrients or laden with added substances that might be better avoided.

Unprocessed book

While this is not a book review exactly, the reading of this book is what prompted me to think more about choosing processed foods. Her goal it seems, was to see if she could figure out where to draw the health line in the food processing continuum. Which processed foods are so minimally processed that they are fine for the body and the planet, and which could she firmly stamp as unacceptable—and for those she was going to avoid, how would she make do without them and what would she swap into their places?

There’s processing and then there’s processing

Not all processed food is bad for your health, and the author of Unprocessed acknowledges that. Obviously, there are levels of food processing, and I’m a big fan of some of it. Food processing started out mainly as a safety measure—one that would keep food fresher longer and prevent food-borne illness. Who can argue with freezing as a processing step that preserves food safely?

Let’s face it, pretty much all food purchased at supermarkets these days is processed in some way. According to a recent study from the University of North Carolina, 61% of the food we eat is “highly processed.” Even fresh fruits and veggies are processed—which many people consider to be unprocessed, but aren’t: they’re washed, sometimes treated to prevent spoilage, trimmed, cut up into different shapes, and often packaged either at a manufacturing facility or in-store. Obviously, fresh produce is minimally processed. Lots of foods are more obviously processed, such as cereals, crackers, breads, candies, pastries and snack foods, canned foods of all kinds, and of course, frozen convenience foods—even the ones from the more health-conscious or organic brands. So when we talk about “processed food” we need to realize that it’s a very inclusive term; one that includes plenty of really healthful foods that we should be eating more of, not trying to remove from our plates.

Processed food can help me eat better

Yep. You heard me. Without some help in getting food to my table, I’d be less likely to eat some of it (and I don’t think I’m alone in this view). It would take too long to shell all the beans and peas I want to consume, there’s no way I will crack nuts and seeds by hand the rest of my days, and you couldn’t pay me to take meat and poultry from live animal status to plucked, skinned, trimmed and ready-for-the-grill status.

Waiting for salt to appear from seawater she collects in a pail and grinding her own wheat by hand—these are not activities I see myself doing (though I did enjoy reading about her trials and tribulations in do so). I don’t have a book project prompting me to do these things, after all! In many cases, Kimble chooses the path of complete processed food avoidance, finding it easier to abstain completely than make some small allowances while not letting her efforts slip away. Not eating something at all when one cannot figure out about absolutely every ingredient in it sounds easy, but in real life, it isn’t, she finds. How does one eat out at all? How does one not spend all day sourcing and preparing food and ingredients? It all sounds like a decent into drudgery to me. I prefer to eat well and healthfully, and enjoy myself too.

Unprocessing your diet

Many people could improve their diets substantially by making just a few smart choices in the quality of food they purchase—and none of these choices require all-day (or multi-day) effort. Megan Kimble gives some good examples of how to do this right up front in her book, including:

  • Buying food that doesn’t need a label at all—fresh produce.
  • Next, choose single-ingredient foods (those for which the ingredient list is just one word long—or maybe two): rolled oats, cream, navy beans, wild rice.
  • Choose which ingredients you want to avoid before you start shopping. You’ll save yourself some agonizing decisions while standing in Aisle 9.

Other ideas that might help you unprocess:

  • Opt for locally-produced foods when you can (many are made the “old-fashioned way” using whole food ingredients and therefore have fewer additives, etc)
  • Frequent farmer’s markets and look for signs at the supermarket for “home grown” or “local farmer” items
  • Check out smaller local shops (they will frequently have more small-batch products that may be less processed than supermarket versions)
  • Grow your own produce, if practical
  • Learn to can/preserve foods if you have that interest (or barter something with a friend who does like to do those things)