In January of 2012, I set myself a challenge. I would go an entire year without eating processed food.
Well, there was the environment—I’d come of age in an era when global warming was all but assumed, when natural resources were suddenly scarce and our food system hungry to consume them. (As it stands now, our food system eats up about a fifth of all fossil fuels consumed nationwide and exhales almost 40 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. Think, for example, about where blueberries come from in December.)
There are economic reasons—as a protest against the global $1.25 trillion processed and packaged food industry (one that does not always have the consumer’s health in mind; one that wields undue influence over politics and agriculture across the world). I wanted to spend my money differently, to endorse, literally, my local food system—one that was, I hoped, visible, accountable, and scalable.
And, of course, there was my health. I wanted to find a way out of the boom-bust cycle of weight gain and loss that began when my 6”1’ frame hit 190 pounds. I joined Weight Watchers and began thinking of food as a sum of its fat, fiber, and calorie components. Although I lost weight, I also lost some integrity in the way I viewed food. Eating unprocessed is an attempt to fall away from this way of eating—to better understand what, exactly, I was putting in my body (what is it that makes yogurt both low-fat and sugar-free?). Today, antioxidants in blueberries become antioxidant-infused blueberry-flavored yogurt; rather than reduce foods to their component nutrients, I wanted to believe that foods, intact, might have a mystery and life of their own—one that nourishes both our bodies and communities.
While eating unprocessed began as a personal project conceived of in my kitchen, it soon drove me out into my community as I sought to understand how it is we shape—how we process—foods out of the raw materials of the world.
There are two ways to think about process. The first is the process of how food gets from source to stomach. Whether an ingredient comes from a mine or a farm, more often than not, this process is one that’s expanded beyond human scale. It is one of machinery—of semi trucks, airplanes, and cold-storage warehouses; of factories, research and development labs and chemical refineries.
Don’t get me wrong—I love processes. I’m interested in movement, in transformation and hidden networks. My day job as a food journalist is dedicated to answering questions like: How does a melon get from soil in Sonora, Mexico to a Safeway supermarket on my street? Or, how does a small-scale rancher slaughter his cows and certify his meat so he or she can sell it at the farmers’ market? These are no longer simple questions with simple answers and part of the reason to eat unprocessed is to untangle these networks, to situate your sustenance just a step closer to its source and reduce the environmental (and community) impacts of eating so far from home.
The other reason to think about food in terms of process is to think about the process of what happens to food when it hits your body. Cooking is a process, as is dicing, heating, fermenting, and preserving; indeed, all foods are processed and often they are the better for it. But increasingly, they are not. Within the past decade, study after study has shown that it is less important to our bodies what were eating than how—in what state—we’re eating it. (Think corn versus corn syrup; white berries versus refined white flour.)
For the purposes of my year, a food was unprocessed if I could theoretically make it in my own kitchen. I ground wheat berries into flour but couldn’t sift out the endosperm—no refined flours. I helped a beekeeper gather honey and used my food processor to grind nuts into butter, but I didn’t refine sugar, distill chemicals, or synthesize emulsifiers (Check out my pages on unprocessed sugar, wheat, dairy, and meat for more specifics). I explored—and continue to explore—what I can actually make on my own, considering always cost, of time and money.
If the question of the year was how to unprocess my food, its experiment was how to afford it. When I started my year unprocessed, I was earning an annual salary of $16,780. I was a graduate student, taking four classes and working twenty-five hours a week on top of those classes. I was busy, poor, and I lived in a small one-bedroom apartment with a janky, understocked kitchen. While there are challenges I can’t grasp about living on the brink of hunger—challenges I will address—the fact of the matter is, most of us have several dollars a week that we could spend differently.
My central hypothesis is that eating whole, unprocessed food does not cost significantly more than the ready-made subsistence you might gather from the industrial food chain. And, more importantly, it does not take significantly more time.