What’s your definition of processed food? The word itself has developed quite the reputation, and not in a good way either. Even so, the definition is ambiguous at best. At this month’s Living Upp Book Club meeting, we discussed Megan Kimble’s book Unprocessed.
But before I dive into the recap of our discussion, let’s take a gander at processed food in general, shall we?
Several years ago, I asked a handful of people from various backgrounds and professions how they defined “processed” food. Here are their responses:
“Altered from its natural state.” – Community Relations Director
“Any food that has additives in it.” – Teacher
“Food that has been handled, cooked, added to, preservatives added.” – CPA
“If it has an ingredient on the label that I don’t have in my pantry.” – Registered Dietitian
“Artificial, Chemicals, No nutrients, Preservatives, Refined, Fat” – Technology Product Manager
“Anything that is not grown from the earth.” – Nursing Home Administrator
“Something that is already mostly prepared…something you just heat up and eat or just eat out of a bag…usually something unhealthy.” – Pharmacist
“They grind things up, put fillers/by-products into it to give it bulk, and then reshape it into something they think looks appetizing.” – Realtor
“I would describe a ‘processed food’ as one that has had many of the natural nutrients stripped away, and many unnecessary ingredients added (e.g. dyes, sugar, salt, soy lecithin, etc.).” – Registered Dietitian
“A food that has been altered in some way – could have been simply canned, frozen, or man-made…changed in some way from the whole, raw food.” Registered Dietitian
And perhaps my favorite: “Shitty.” – Entrepreneur (Probably my favorite. Simple and to the point, don’t you think?)
But if you consider how term processed is defined according to the food industry’s regulatory guidelines, you’ll see what I mean.
The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (SEC. 201. [21 U.S.C. 321] defined processed food as “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration, or milling.”
Then, by that definition:
- If you cut corn off the cob and freeze it you’ve processed it.
- If you can tomato juice on your stove-top using tomatoes from your garden, it’s been processed.
- If you smoke salmon in your backyard smoker, it’s now a processed food.
All of these foods possess health-promoting properties, yet they’re considered processed.
See the conundrum?
The practice of preserving food isn’t new. Throughout history, methods like smoking, salt-curing, freezing, fermenting, sun drying, pickling and canning have been used to ensure that food was available during times of scarcity – when growing conditions were poor or during the winter months. Technically, any method used to preserve food is a form of processing.
I’ve often wondered why we have such an aversion to the word processed. After all, it’s a universal practice among cultures throughout the globe. What is it exactly about the word processed that is so upsetting to us?
In part, it’s likely because modern food preservation practices are quite different today, compared to those used in earlier generations. Large-scale manufacturing operations as far back as the Chicago meat-packing days had a slightly different agendas than our grandmothers: Making a profit.
When the primary objective of processing goes beyond the noble cause of preserving nutrients, and the focus shifts toward extending shelf-life to increase profit margins, things start to get a little sketchy.
By increasing a product’s shelf-life, it can remain on the shelf for a longer period of time before it expires, which also increases the likelihood that it will be sold.
But the problem is that to make products more shelf-stable, manufacturers have to strip foods down, remove components that tend to spoil quickly, and then reassembled (often with fillers, colorings, preservatives, and other synthetic nutrients) until they look like an entirely different product altogether. And it’s these real food doppelgangers that have become so ubiquitous on grocery shelves today.
One of the most profound things I’ve ever read about this cultural change came from Joel Salatin:
“…If we removed all the food items in a supermarket that would not have been available before 1900, the shelves would be bare.” – Joel Salatin
Okay, so back to the Living Upp book club discussion.
In her book Unprocessed*, author Megan Kimble describes in detail her personal experience with establishing her own parameters around what level of processing is acceptable. From learning to bake her own bread to making salt from ocean water, Kimble shares her journey toward understanding what it’s like to eat real food.
Want to read Unprocessed*?
So, what does it take to truly adopt and unprocessed eating style?
Kimble encountered several challenges along the way — especially when it came to determining which ingredients or processing methods warrant a food to earn a “processed” label. For instance, is beer processed simply because it undergoes fermentation?
The evening’s book club discussion centered around the idea that food choices and eating styles are personal, and our choices are made in varying contexts. It turns out that we care about, in terms of how our food was grown, harvested, packaged and delivered, differs depending on our personal value systems and paradigms.
As a group, we acknowledged that some of our food choices are often less about ingredient quality or aesthetics and more about what and who we are supporting with our purchase. As consumers, we do have a good bit of power in that we can place our money in the hands of people whose practices are beneficial to both the environment and our health.
But the choice is ours.
What it comes down to, we decided, is that most of us give attention and resources to the things we care about, and food is definitely something that we should all care about.
Ready to improve your eating style?
*Living Upp is a participant in the Amazon Associates Program, which means we earn a commission from qualifying purchases.