What does “processed food” mean to you?

My friend Andrew Wilder from Eating Rules is doing something really cool. He and about 3,000 people have pledged not to eat processed food for the month of October. Hence the name: “October Unprocessed.”

To be successful in avoiding processed food, it’s necessary to define what that really means. Andrew uses what he calls a “kitchen test.” My understanding is that if you can make it in your home kitchen, then it is not a processed food.

I took the pledge, but I decided I needed to define “processed food” on my own terms. I like how Andrew defines the term “processing” implies some kind of factory, while unprocessed is straight from your kitchen. But to me there’s more to the story.

Recently I stupidly forgot a snack before a long drive. I stopped for something to eat and after looking at the offerings in a convenience store, I went with the “Lays Classic” potato chips. There are only three ingredients: Potatoes, oil (of some kind), and salt. I told Andrew how I ate potato chips (he probably shivered), but he said that strictly speaking those store-bought chips met the kitchen test. That didn’t sit well with me.

While yes I can thinly slice potato chips, fry them in oil, and then douse the “chips” in salt, I don’t think that the chips I bought are “unprocessed.” The product from my home kitchen would be far better for me than chips from a store. Normally I chose organic/farmer’s market potatoes and a higher quality oil so my home chips would not be genetically modified (corn oil used for the chips is most likely genetically modified). They wouldn’t look like chips from a bag — they would be pretty unique since I would hand chop them — and the texture would be different.

So there is no part of me that could eat store-bought chips and still plan on eating unprocessed in the month of October. But it got me thinking about processed food. Processed food in my world meets one or more of the following criteria:

  1. Must be made in a factory by a machine or in a lab by a food scientist
  2. Is shelf-stable for months, maybe years, because of additives and preservatives
  3. Contains natural or artificial flavors
  4. Is genetically modified
  5. Possible BPA leaching

Examples include corn syrup, natural flavors (when you look into it, you find out that they are all created in a lab and are hardly “natural”), artificial dyes (Yellow #5, Red #40, Blue #1 are all petroleum-based dyes), additives, and preservatives. Further examples, that may be more controversial, include chicken nuggets (can be made at home, but are nothing like store-bought), canned soup, many boxed cookies, many microwave meals, most cereals… Hmm, stuff in my cupboards…

When I pushed Andrew to tell me what he thinks are true processed foods, Andrew told me that he would never “tell anyone what to eat.” He’s so diplomatic. But he does define #unprocessed (so check it out).

How do you define “processed food?” Could you go a month without it?

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17 thoughts on “What does “processed food” mean to you?

  1. What does processed food mean to me? Stomachaches and lost productivity. There’s almost no processed food that won’t make my skin feel like it’s on fire. Only the organic ones are safe.

  2. I joined up last week and spent last weekend getting ready for it. I already am eating pretty much unprocessed, organic, no GMO but also I’m gluten free so sometimes those glutino crackers sneak in there. The ingredients aren’t really bad but I wouldn’t call them unprocessed. So I put all my crackers downstairs and made some gluten free whole grain bread. I think the hardest part for me will be camping with my Sister this weekend. The camp ground does a hog roast and everyone brings a side dish. Well I know I can eat the hog and whatever I bring but people in Southern Ohio cook like this Take one box of X add two cans of Y then a jar or so of Z dump into a bowl, stir, bake, shudder.

  3. I was watching Dr. Oz once, and he had a guest on that said even olive oil is a processed food. Makes sense if you think about it, but it is such a staple for so many people who eat very healthfully.

  4. It is hard to know how far to go for it to be “good enough” isn’t it? I suppose one could grow or raise, harvest/slaughter, preserve all foods. But that’s probably not a real possibility for most. And how far do you take it? Grow and grind wheat for bread or corn for cornmeal, for example?

      1. I should have said I was speaking in the general “you”! Sorry.

        It is just that I think that sometimes that challenges such as this can turn into a “my way is better than yours” kind of situation. (again, speaking in the general forms of “my” and “you”, not at a specific individual).

        In the broad sense, wouldn’t processing mean anything that is done to a food? So, yes, I understand, if a person makes an item themselves (the chicken nugget example) from local, free-range chickens who have never received an antibiotic and from organically grown, home ground cornmeal in the breading…it’s a whole different product than what is in the freezer bag. Or is there a middle ground (maybe?) of a store purchased chicken with store purchased ingredients for breading?

        I see the value of raising awareness, but when there are so many aspects to food and what is right and good…Erin’s comment below has a good point…is there an “easier” criteria that can steer us in the right direction?

  5. I’m very dubious about the idea of arbitrarily defining “what is an unprocessed food” and then telling everyone to avoid unprocessed foods. I think it makes healthy eating seem either ridiculously hard (avoid everything!) or turns it into a farce (just buy the potato chips that look sort of like maybe you could make them in your kitchen!) and distracts people from useful, meaningful dietary changes that they could stick with.

    What we really need to tell people, instead of “eat fewer processed foods” is EAT YOUR FRUITS AND VEGGIES. I can make a killer chocolate ganache cake that meets Andrew Wilder’s definition of “unprocessed” food (I make it in my kitchen, after all), but that doesn’t make it good for me. I think it would be far better for me to go eat some “processed” pre-cut baby carrots, even though, let’s face it, there is no way any sane person could hand-chop a big pile of carrots into those little uniform baby-carrot shapes without losing a finger.

  6. Hmmm. So would condiments like soy sauce and mustard be processed foods? Would cornflakes or puffed rice as well, if I can’t make them at home?

    1. I think that it’s as far as you want to take it. I think that everything except for cornflakes would pass the kitchen test, theoretically.

  7. What about unsweetened, full-fat Greek yogurt, which I consume quite frequently? I can make yogurt at home, I guess, but because all of the ingredients are pronounceable, I don’t feel compelled to do so.

    It’s also impossible to grow coffee in my climate–does that make coffee a processed food?

    Processing is really a continuum, and to some extent any processing tends to make foods less healthy, or at least more caloric. A plain roasted chicken with fresh herbs is less processed and more healthy even than homemade chicken Parmesan, which requires a certain degree of ‘processing’ (breading, frying, and so forth).

    I find that trying to eat foods NATURALLY low in sugar and carbs tends to be the best way to eat healthfully, and making any ‘treats’ so at least the sugar is relatively moderate as well.

  8. I usually define processed as the junk food my husband enjoys and I have to hide from my kid. I also keep pre-made noodle and rices in sauces/creams out of the house.

  9. I think I agree with your definition…

    I was thinking about the bagel place in my city that I eat at every couple of weeks. I COULD make those bagels in my kitchen, I suppose, if I knew the recipe, but I really never would. As far as I know, though, it doesn’t fit any of your five rules. The meat and cheese or cream cheese that goes on them, though, definitely has some processing.

    It would be nearly impossible for me to avoid cheese that you wouldn’t consider processed for a whole month.

  10. Hello.

    To me processed means made in a factory or lab, anything that lasts longer than nature would have it, aka the McDonald’s burger that never rots.

    I would love to do a month of unprocessed, I think it would be challenging and fun. I read a book by Chef AJ called Unprocessed and I’d still love to give it a try.

  11. Chiming in late…

    To me unprocessed is looking at the ingredients. To your potato chip example – the potatoes and oil used were probably not the best kind of ingredients available (GMO, etc). So I’d call that processed food although technically it “meets” many people’s “guidelines” of unprocessed.

    We just try to keep things as natural as possible. No HFCS in our house. We try to limit the number of ingredients in our foods (although your potato chip example would ‘fit’ in our guidelines), and we try to keep things natural.

    We’re definitely not perfect. We still get frozen yogurt tubes for the kids as a snack. But they also love greek yogurt too which is healthier for them (although technically processed).

    We definitely don’t have a perfect system, but we’re trying 🙂

  12. someone once told me a very simple test to see if something is a processed food or not. if your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize the product or something on it’s ingredient list then it is most likely processed.

    the only exception i can think of would be foods that weren’t known to grammy’s home but could have been found in another part of the world.

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