Eat unprocessed food.
If you boil down the gallons and gallons of advice out there about how to care for your health, the environment, and society, you might well find you’re left with this simple rule. The less processed a food item is, the better it is for you and for the earth. Easy, right?
Megan Kimble wasn’t so sure. But after she spent a year in rural Nicaragua, teaching English and eating simple, locally grown food, she was determined to find out just what it means to eat an unprocessed diet in the urban United States. She documents her quest in Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food.
Kimble, who was 26 and living in Tucson, Arizona, set out to spend a full year working to ensure that everything she ate or drank was as unprocessed as possible. It was 2012. Her budget was limited, but she had some advantages: supportive friends, occasional financial help from her parents, and year-round access to fresh produce. How feasible would it be for someone like her to avoid processed foods? “Many of us are stuck between knowing what we should do and feeling like we don’t have enough time or money to do it,” she writes. “Eating unprocessed was my attempt to find another way in, unburdened by ‘should do,’ focused instead on ‘can do.’”
And she does. From accessible kitchen experiments, like grinding her own flour and making her own chocolate, to immersive adventures, like a two-day ranch seminar on slaughtering sheep, Kimble delves deep into learning about the processes that bring food to our tables. She organizes these accounts by food, with a small section at the end of each chapter offering the reader tips on how to go unprocessed at home.
The first problem she encounters is a fundamental one: What does “unprocessed” even mean?
After all, just about all food is processed to some extent. But, Kimble writes, “if we understand the difference between an apple and a bag of Chex Mix—and we do—and if the space between the two matters for the health of our bodies and the environment—and it does—then the question of what makes a food too processed also matters.”
Throughout the year and the book, she ponders precisely this question. While most of us think of a factory line when we hear the word “processed,” Kimble’s working definition comes to include how far a food must travel to get to consumers, how much packaging comes with it, the amount of human labor, water, and pesticides involved in growing or raising it, and how semi-natural processes like fermentation factor in.
In addition to chronicling the author’s adventures, much of the book is devoted to offering readers background and context for understanding the larger issues at play in our food systems, such as the rise of GMO crops and how industrializing food production has led to hardier but less tasty produce. For those new to food justice, it’s a useful introduction that covers a lot of ground. Readers already versed in these topics might find themselves skipping pages here and there, but even they will find some surprises.
In the discussion on sugar, for example, Kimble quotes a 2011 study that found that “three-fourths of the honey sold in U.S. grocery stores wasn’t actually honey, meaning it had been ultra-filtered to remove any identifying qualities,” such as the pollen that gives honey its nutrition and its distinct local flavor.
Likewise, a wheat farmer informs Kimble that “all the flour you buy in the store is rancid.” He adds that “as soon as you break apart a kernel of wheat, the components begin to oxidize. . . .
The nutrition profile just plummets.” This, he explains, is why fermented grains (like sourdough) have predominated through much of human history. “How is this not known?” Kimble wonders; it’s revelations like these, I suspect that will motivate readers to follow her lead.
Kimble isn’t always successful in sticking to unprocessed foods. Her budget limits her—though, when she attempts to live on food stamps in the SNAP Challenge, she discovers how much more difficult unprocessed eating is for those living in poverty. Restaurants are a challenge, and she discovers halfway through her unprocessed year that many of the alcoholic beverages she’s been drinking are full of highly processed additives. But she comes to find a great deal of satisfaction in her new diet—both philosophically and physically. “I feel fuller, stronger, healthier,” she writes, “but mostly I feel like my body fits together more seamlessly and coherently than it ever has before.
The book has a few faults. It suffers a little from editing errors and typos. Kimble’s writing is accessible and enjoyable, but at times her forays into the poetic can feel a little forced. In terms of content, the focus on Kimble’s personal quest necessarily limits the scope of the book. This is a good place to begin understanding why processed food dominates the American diet and what problems this raises, but readers will need to look elsewhere for solutions. If, on the other hand, you’ve been thinking about trying to limit the processed foods in your diet, Unprocessed is well worth your time.
Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food, 352 pp., $15.99, HarperCollins, 2015