How to go unprocessed

By Megan Kimble

This article was featured in the Jan/Feb issue of the Food Conspiracy Co-op’s newsletter, Community News.

A little over two years ago, I set myself a challenge. I would go an entire year without eating a processed food. The first question you might ask—besides “But why?” (and I’ll get to that)—is “What makes a food processed?”

Cooking is a process, as is dicing, heating, fermenting, and preserving; indeed, all foods are processed and often they are the better for it. But increasingly, they are not; today, what we refer to when we speak of processed foods are foods that have been manipulated and molded beyond recognition.

For the purposes of my year, a food was unprocessed if I could theoretically make it in my own kitchen. I ground wheat berries into flour but couldn’t sift out the endosperm—no refined flours. I helped a beekeeper gather honey and used my food processor to grind nuts into butter, but I didn’t refine sugar, stock up on chemicals, or mix emulsifiers.

That meant giving up some of my favorite foods, including low-carb bread or fake cheese or Diet Coke.

Giving up processed foods was a decision both political and personal. Although my year unprocessed was motivated in part by health and weight, by economics and environmentalism, more than anything it was an attempt to connect my dollars to my community. Processed foods represent a $1.25 trillion market across the globe and this market is controlled by only a handful of companies. The giants of our food system are also our political Goliaths, who use this influence to lobby for policies that may or may not serve our interests and health. One way to take a stand against this influence is to redirect our dollars away from these corporations—and the packaged products they produce—and spend them instead in our community, supporting growers and processors who sell locally (and thus must be locally accountable).

Indeed, while unprocessing my food supply began as a very personal project conceived of in my kitchen, it soon drove me out into the Baja Arizona community as I sought to understand how it is we shape food from the raw materials of the world.

I drove to Phoenix and spent an afternoon in the dusty world of Hayden Flour Mills; I stared into the big brown eyes of a cow at Double Check Ranch, grasped the warm udder of Sammy the goat at Chiva Risa Ranch, and walked through the many furrowed fields of vegetables that allow Tucson to keep on eating and thriving. Finally, at the end of my year, I spent two days at Bean Tree Farm, where I helped to slaughter, butcher, and process a sheep. Although it was a colossal endeavor, breaking apart a once-sentient animal, what it taught me was that I didn’t have to undertake it every time I wanted to eat meat—that there was a reason we once clustered into communities. What I learned after eating unprocessed for a year was that I didn’t have to do all my food processing myself; I could work to earn money to support those people in my community who were processing foods—growing vegetables, fermenting cheese, bottling wine, raising cattle—and doing it well.

Unprocessed eating refers to more than just the ingredient label; it is a way of being a consumer in your community.

How to shop unprocessed at the Co-op

Much of my year unprocessed unfolded in the aisles of the Food Conspiracy Co-op, as I fretted up and down the aisles, muttering over ingredient labels or pulling out my smartphone to Google search “What is citric acid.” The effort and time-cost of buying unprocessed is spent upfront, but it can quickly become effortless. Some tips to get you started:

Read ingredient labels. If you don’t really know what it is, it’s processed: Soy lecithin, modified food starch, and xanthium gum are a few regular culprits. Many of these smoothing agents and preservatives are found in low-fat and vegan dairy products like cheese or yogurt. (Soy and almond milks, while great alternatives to cow or goat’s milk, are full of chemicals and emulsifiers to create the same “mouth-feel” as animal milk.)

When you’re reading labels, watch out for artificial sweeteners or refined sugar; don’t buy brands that add either unnecessarily. Mustard, for example, does not really need sugar—look for brands sweetened with honey. Ditto for marinara sauce—tomatoes contain enough natural sugars that you really shouldn’t see “cane syrup” on an ingredient label.

Shop the sales. When you’re on a budget, sometimes spending locally can be a stretch. Each month, the co-op puts different grocery items on sale for all shoppers, through its Co+Op Deals program. Produce specials, also for all shoppers, change each Wednesday. There are also Basic Buys for co-op owners, which offer staple foods at 10% above cost. Stock up on wine, yogurt, frozen corn tortillas, or almond butter. Well, don’t just stock up on my favorites—get whatever you eat consistently and make some space in your cabinet or freezer.

Buy from the bulk bins. Not only do you save packaging waste, you send less of your dollars to the middlemen who make those packages. During my year, whenever I had to travel, I stocked up on Chunks of Energy Carob Squares and tamari almonds.

Ask questions. When I was intimidated by raw milk, I finally just walked up to a co-op employee and said, “So, um, what’s up with raw milk?” When he told me that 30 gallons were delivered once a week from Queen Creek and that demand was so high they couldn’t keep it in stock, I happily jumped on the bandwagon and crowd-sourced my anxiety.

Find your favorites. My favorites are: Cherry Pie Lara Bars (ingredients: cherries, dates, almonds). Honey! I love honey, most especially Happy Bear’s creamed honey, which I eat with a spoon. R.W. Knudsen’s fruit juice plus soda water equals unprocessed cola. La Tauna Tortillas: Not only are they made locally, the Whole Wheat Olive Oil Tortillas are made with only its namesake ingredients, plus salt.

Find your exceptions. Now that my official year unprocessed has ended, I’ve happily returned to buying paper-wrapped bars of chocolate and spicy bottles of Ginger Ale, both of which contain cane sugar (and sometimes preservatives). I have not returned to low-carb bread or fake cheese or Diet Coke or 90 percent of the processed foods I used to love. (After a year off, the first time I tasted Diet Coke, it no longer tasted sweet—just chemical.)

Win a $20 giftcard to the Co-op! Tweet #unprocessed @megankimble or post on with your favorite unprocessed tip, product, or brand.

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Join Megan Kimble, Managing Editor of Edible Bajaat the Hoff Building on January 18 as she talks about her experience eating unprocessed foods for a year. Megan will discuss how to read and understand ingredient labels and more. Space is limited. Please RSVP  be emailing [email protected]

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