Hey, locavores and whole-foodies: Want to know if a new acquaintance shares your worldview? Simply offer him or her a bag of Doritos. If you get a wrinkled nose or a gagging sound in reply, bingo! Revulsion for processed foods is the great uniter among those of us who believe that caring for the planet starts with looking at what’s at the end of our fork. (It is possible to get a false negative with this test; your new friend might just be polite. Offer a bite of kale-quinoa salad next, just to be sure.)
We have good reason to despise processed foods: Packaged, chemically preserved edibles are often high in sodium and sugar, upping the risk for obesity, high blood pressure, and all their attendant ills. Processed meats in particular are linked to heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer. Nutrition experts almost universally recommend a diet high in whole fruits, vegetables, and grains — apples over Apple Jacks, in other words.
But for most Americans, cutting out soda, bologna, Cheetos, most cereals, and all other processed foods would be a mighty challenge. After all, a recent analysis found that we spend the largest portion of our grocery budgets on processed foods and sweets. Hey, they’re convenient, and often cheap.
For Grist readers, eating close to the ground is probably old hat. And I, too, have wild success with whole foods in the kitchen. (This is helped by the fact that I actually like stuff like lentils and beet slaw.)
But what about those times when you couldn’t plan ahead? What about when you’re at the mercy of another cook? (You’re putting Fritos on the chili? Nooooo!) What about when you’re really hungry, and your only option for miles is a mini-mart overflowing with cheese dogs and Ruffles? Those, my friends, are the true crucibles for the unprocessed eater.
This is why I decided to dig deeper for solutions to the toughest culinary situations — the times when I’m at high risk for slipping into the processed jungle. I’ll be tackling these challenges and reporting back on what works. And if you’ve successfully faced them down? By all means, spill your tricks below!
How, you ask, do I define processed food? If you’re a strict constructionist type, a processed food is one that has been altered from its original state in any way. That means anything dried, frozen, canned, or homogenized gets a big old scarlet P. That’s a bit too constricting for my tastes. Instead, I prefer the “kitchen test” definition used in Andrew Wilder’s October Unprocessed challenge: If the food in question could be made at home by a competent cook out of whole-food ingredients, it’s good to go. That means good cereals, crackers, oil, coffee, chocolate, alcohol, cheese, and turbinado sugar are still on the team. Whew!
OK, here are my five challenges:
1. Road trips
Long drives, short breaks, and highway exits choked with fast food and gas stations make for a processed nightmare. You might be able to dig up a squishy banana or an organic cheese stick at the gas station; fast-food restaurants might fix you a salad without the refined-flour croutons or nitrate-y bacon bits. What options really await the hungry traveler? And failing that, what’s great for making ahead and packing for the road?
Even those fresh-local-organic lovefest joints have their pitfalls. What, exactly, is in that sauce? Or that dressing? How much salt got involved with this dish before it hit the table? I thought I’d done well at a casual pub the other day by ordering the portobello sandwich. Fresh mushrooms, tomatoes, cheese, lettuce … and a white flour bun. Damn. Got me on a technicality.
3. Dinner parties
Many a vegan and gluten-freegan before me has faced this dilemma: What to do when your eating habits clash with your host’s? Turning up your nose at a friend’s offering can make you look like a self-righteous gasbag if you don’t handle it right. Oh, and those of you thinking that polite social navigation is so not important next to your hallowed eating choices? Your friends asked me to give you a message: It is.
I can fill my breakfast, lunch, and dinner plates with old-fashioned oats, baked yams, and grilled eggplant ‘til the cows come home. But to feed my sweet tooth? Oh, I love cookies (refined sugar). And frozen yogurt (more sugar). And cake (you get the picture). Ooh, and cupcakes. Can’t turn down a good cobbler … I see some creative fruit-based desserts in my future. And what about real ice cream? Shouldn’t that count? Didn’t we all make that ourselves in middle school science class?
5. Backpacking trips
Extended wilderness excursions are probably the only times that you have to worry about getting enough salt and fat. Plus, whole fruits and veggies are really heavy. This usually translates to a backcountry diet heavy on salami, packaged energy bars, sugary oatmeal pouches, chocolate, and preseasoned packets of pasta and rice. There’s got to be a better way.
And we’re off! I’ll be reporting back over the next few weeks with dispatches from the front.