It’s Unprocessed October: What’s in Your Cupboard?


Every month it seems that there’s a different blog-driven food challenge. This month, it’s Unprocessed October. Just like the challenge of defining local for September’s Eat Local Challenge, one of the challenges (besides restricting your diet) is defining unprocessed.

Whole, single ingredient foods like fresh fruits and vegetables are obviously unprocessed. Eggs are a pretty clear-cut unprocessed food. As are meats that haven’t been smoked or cured in any way. The tomatoes in the photo above – though technically “processed” to can them safely – would be unprocessed in my book, because they are sold by a vendor I know, at a reputable farmers’ market, and don’t contain anything but whole ingredients. (Extra points if you canned your own tomatoes!) But once you venture outside of those parameters, it gets a little trickier to define “processed food.”

For example, what about grains and flour? Are steel cut oats processed? What about rolled oats? Probably not, because the outer hull is removed. Let’s say you decide that flour is unprocessed as long as it’s ground from whole grains, and butter is okay because you could certainly make it at home with fresh cream”¦

So you set out to make a fabulous dessert with fresh fruit, flour, butter, and eggs. But if you put sugar in it, you’re on shakier ground because both white and brown sugar are highly processed and sometimes bleached with chemicals. You might decide to use honey, or maple syrup, or even turbinado sugar, but for some people those foods might be considered processed.

As another example, what about dairy products? Is pasteurization considered processing? What if you remove some of their fat? Or take those dairy products and make them into cheese, or yogurt?

And what about the other stuff in the bulk bins at the supermarket besides the whole grains? Dried fruit, for instance. Or trail mix? Depends on what’s in it. If dried fruit has sulfur added to it to keep it soft and brightly colored, you might want to take a pass, while unsulphured fruit might be ok.

The trouble with defining processing is that humans have been processing foods forever. Originally, the purpose of processing was to enhance the food’s flavor, nutrition, longevity, or all three. Long ago humans figured out how to turn milk into cheese and other dairy products, grind whole grains into flour, or ferment them to make alcoholic beverages, preserve vegetables through pickling or fermentation, and smoke or dry meats to make them last until the next hunt.

But modern, industrial processing of food is a different story. This type of processing may be done to enhance shelf life but rarely does it enhance the actual food or its health-giving properties. (Don’t get me started on so-called “functional foods.”) It’s these modern processed foods we want to stay away from during Unprocessed October.

But even with those seemingly whole foods, there’s some gray area. For example, would you consider an energy bar processed? It depends on the method and ingredients. One helpful blog resource, Gastronicity, written by Nishanga Bliss L.A.c. says that a Clif Bar would definitely be processed while an 18 Rabbits Granola bar would not, due to its short list of real ingredients. Andrew Wilder’s blog, Eating Rules (where Unprocessed October originated) holds every food up to the DIY test before making the call.

According to Eating Rules, if the food is something you could conceivably make at home, even if it requires specialized equipment, it’s okay. Therefore cheese is fine, beer is all right, cooking oils, and even distilled alcoholic beverages get a passing grade. Likewise coffee and chocolate. These are eating rules I could live with.

But the Eating Rules blog also cautions readers to check labels. If the chocolate has emulsifiers, consider it processed. If the grains are refined, better skip them. There are a number of other cautionary ingredients. Yogurt is another good example. Yogurt at its simplest is easy to make at home by simply heating milk, adding some starter yogurt and then keeping the mixture at the proper temperature until it cultures and thickens. But store-bought yogurt can contain high fructose corn syrup and other added ingredients that would certainly make it processed. Nishanga Bliss of Gastronicity told me that Yoplait lemon yogurt has more sugar and more ingredients than Häagen Dazs chocolate ice cream. Read the labels!

I can’t decide for you what to consider processed or not, but for my own unprocessed October pantry, I’d say that if the food product specialized mechanical equipment or a temperature controlled room, it’s processed.

If you want to participate in Unprocessed October, don’t worry that we’re well into the month. Start with a week and extend your month into November if you’re having too much fun to stop!

There is a sea of packaged foods on a typical grocer’s shelf that you can tell at a glance are processed, but here’s a list of 10 foods to watch out for that you might normally consider whole, healthy foods.

1. Almost any type of commercial cereal, including rolled oats – because they are not made from whole grains, and are produced through a laborious process requiring special rollers and driers

2. Dried Pasta – unless you know the flour used to make it was made with whole grains

3. Ice Cream – commercial brands contain undisclosed stabilizers to keep it soft in your freezer

4. Olive oil and nut oils – laborious process for a home cook, so use butter or home-rendered lard

5. Tofu – unless you make it at home using whole organic soybeans and not commercial soy milk

6. Low Fat or Non fat dairy products – usually have processed milk solids added back into them to preserve mouth feel

7. Corn tortillas – unless you know that they were made from masa that was prepared from field corn, and don’t contain additives to keep them soft. (Store bought flour tortillas are definitely out.)

8. Many commercial cheeses and yogurts – check the labels for unfamiliar ingredients

9. Almost any commercial bread – yup! Even the ones that say “whole wheat” Read the labels!

10. Herbal Teas – some brands (even natural ones) add artificial flavors

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.