In a previous post I explained why I have decided to reduce (and possibly eliminate, eventually) processed foods from my family’s diet. So the next step is to determine exactly which foods are processed and which are not. This post is a result of my deliberations.
The first thing I’ve determined, is that, unless you grow your own food, all foods that are purchased at the market are processed in some way. I do not believe that there is such a thing as unprocessed foods. I think there are minimally-processed foods. But unprocessed foods cannot be purchased. They can only be grown yourself.
Even the most minimally processed foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, have, in some way, been processed by the farmer, the manufacturer, the supplier, or by the market itself. Apples have to be planted, tended, picked, washed, chilled, sorted and packaged into bags. Then they have to be stored, loaded, shipped, unloaded and stocked in the market’s produce department. This is minimal processing to be sure, but it is still processing in the strictest sense of the word.
Bags of baby carrots are planted, picked, sorted, washed, peeled and cut into portions before bagging and shipping. While they are still minimally processed, they are more processed than whole carrots. The same is true of salad and greens in a bag or box. They are less processed than canned or frozen spinach, but more processed than buying bunches of lettuce and greens yourself, then cutting and cleaning them in your own kitchen. In the case of baby carrots, bagged salad and bagged greens, doing the work yourself saves the money of paying the manufacturer to do it for you, but it takes extra time, which you may or may not have available.
Flour is considered by many (myself included) to be a basic kitchen staple. It hasn’t been processed into bread, cakes or muffins. It’s an ingredient that you use to prepare your own baked goods, at considerable savings. Flour doesn’t seem like it’s a processed food, but it is. The wheat is grown by the farmer, then harvested, transported, threshed, cleaned and finally milled into flour. If it’s white flour, then the grain has had the bran and germ removed and then the flour is bleached to make it uniformly white. Finally a few artificial vitamins are added back in. This is called enrichment. It adds back a few vitamins, but enriched flour does not have the same nutrition as whole wheat flour, which is made from the whole kernel of wheat.
Both whole grain flour and white flour are more processed than an apple. Some people say that whole wheat flour is minimally processed because it’s made from the whole grain. Some people say that white flour is minimally processed because it’s not yet baked into bread or cake. Depending on how you look at it, flour can be seen as a convenience food, since you don’t have to do the picking, threshing and grinding yourself (which would be very inconvenient). It can also be seen as a minimally processed food since you have to further process it yourself to turn it into bread and other baked goods.
I think each person, each family, has to determine where the line between processed and unprocessed lies. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to determine which foods I consider processed and which ones I consider whole or minimally processed.
Is Ezekiel bread, which is made from sprouted whole grains, a processed food, or an unprocessed food? It’s certainly processed in some ways. The grains are harvested, threshed, cleaned, transported, soaked, sprouted and then ground into bread dough. The dough has yeast and salt added to it, then it’s kneaded, allowed to rise and baked in a factory. Finally it’s sliced, bagged, frozen and distributed to markets across the nation. This is a lot of processing.
Compared to spongy white bread, however, which is made from bleached and bromated flour, and has lots of iffy ingredients added, like corn syrup, dough conditioners, and a ton of chemicals I can’t pronounce (let alone spell), Ezekiel Bread seems minimally processed.
It’s a sticky wicket.
For me and my family, I have decided that any processing I can do myself, in my own kitchen, such as washing, chopping, sprouting, mixing, fermenting and grinding, is minimally processed. If it’s an accessible and traditional process, then it’s minimally processed. If it has added ingredients that I cannot pronounce or spell, then it is extremely processed.
That means that Ezekiel bread, by my definition, is minimally processed. Flour that has already been ground and grains that have already been flaked or rolled, such as rolled oats, are minimally processed. I can make flour with my kitchen grain mill. I could, theoretically, flake or roll oats or other grains if I had that attachment for my grain mill. Cut up watermelon and pineapple, celery sticks and broccoli trees, that are cut up at the supermarket and offered for sale in little containers, are minimally processed. They cost more than I would ever be willing to pay for them, but they are minimally processed.
Whole grain pasta, with a short list of ingredients, is something that I can, and often have, prepared myself. It tastes really good when it’s homemade, and it costs less than store-bought whole grain pasta. However, preparing pasta from scratch every time my kids want spaghetti is an awful lot of work. So for me, pasta is a minimally processed food. For some people it is not.
A prepared pie, is not minimally processed. Even though I can, and do, make my own pies, the ones that are already prepared at the store contain ingredients I wouldn’t use such as high fructose corn syrup, white flour, preservatives, and chemicals that I cannot pronounce or spell. This is a highly processed food.
All chocolate and cocoa is processed. Even the raw cacao powder that costs $13 a pound. The cocoa beans have to be cleaned, fermented, dried, roasted and ground. The cocoa butter has to be extracted from the cocoa beans. The dry stuff remaining is cocoa powder. To make chocolate the ground cocoa beans are combined with other fats, sugar and emulsifiers. Other flavorings are added and sometimes other chemicals too. It’s an extensive process. Some people consider plain unsweetened cocoa a whole food. I’m not sure I do.
On the other hand, most people do not consider canned foods to be whole foods, since they have gone through the canning process. I’ve canned a great many fruits and vegetables and even meats in my time, and I’m not sure that canning itself makes all canned foods bad nutritional choices. Fresh fruits and vegetables taste better, and are more nutritious, but canning was invented for a reason. It makes foods keep for a long time without spoilage. Makes them easy to transport and easy to store. It makes them very reasonably priced too, and in all things, I must balance cost with value. Lots of lower-income people use canned goods because you can stock up on them when you have the cash, and then have them available, ready to eat, when times are tough. Food banks and commodity programs give out lots of canned goods.
I have decided that plain canned foods, such as plain canned corn or peaches, are minimally processed by my definition. The ones without added salt or sugar are my preference. Home canning is something that I am able to do myself, and when products are canned without added ingredients, like salt, sugar, seasonings or preservatives, I think they are a viable choice for my family. Fresh is certainly better, but fresh is not always an option for every family, especially at the end of the month.
I’m still refining and adjusting my theory. For the most part though, I’ve got a pretty good handle on the difference between what I consider processed foods and unprocessed, or more specifically, minimally processed foods.
I would be really interested in reading how other families and individuals have reasoned this out for themselves.