Food and diet challenges always intrigue me. While I fancy the idea of taking on a locavore challenge, I wonder exactly how to pull that off living through a Midwest winter. Meatless Mondays, on the other hand, are completely do-able. Last week I stumbled upon an interesting one via Twitter that sounded achievable – Unprocessed October. For the second year Andrew over at Eating Wild has proposed a challenge – go an entire month without processed food. I was intrigued. I really don’t eat much processed food and needed to jumpstart a healthier diet regime heading into the holidays so I figured, what the heck. Let’s give this a go.
The rules are pretty simple – skip processed food for the month of October. As Andrew defines it: “Unprocessed food is any food that could be made by a person with reasonable skill in a home kitchen with readily available, whole-food ingredients.” He calls it the “The Kitchen Test.” If the label has an ingredient that you’d never use and couldn’t possibly make yourself, it’s a no-go.
Friday evening I took a look inside my over-stuffed cabinets. Not too bad. There were a few things – salsa, a can of soup – that had some unpronounceable ingredients and would by definition be out but overall, not bad at all. Knowing my fridge and freezers were full of things I made was no cause for concern and there were just a few condiments I needed to keep an eye on. This was going to be easy.
Turns out, it’s a little more difficult than I thought and we’re only on Day 3. What I’ve learned in 72 hours is bits of processed ingredients turn up everywhere, whether we mean to consume them or not. I hadn’t counted on that.
So the first day of the challenge – Saturday October 1st – appears, bright and sunny. I had just bought a massive Costco size pack of yogurt and another of Odawalla fresh juice. Healthy, right? Well by the technical terms of this unprocessed challenge, maybe not so much. The juice, while packed with multiple fresh fruits also contained vitamin E, C and beta carotene as added ingredients. Is it processed if vitamins are added? Given the kitchen test, could I make those myself? I have no idea – can you make vitamins? But since I could buy them in their whole form and ingest as supplements I decided this one was OK. Good thing because I have 16 more to drink by 10/22. Next!
On to the yogurt – Fage Fat Free Greek yogurt with a little sidecar of fruit. Delicious and fat free so good, right? Perhaps but I’m taking a big leap with this one. I read the label intently: skim milk, live active yogurt cultures. That’s it? Since I actually do have a packet of yogurt cultures in my cabinet and I could, and will one day, make my own yogurt this one is good to go!
Now then, the fruit contained sugar, cherries, pomegranate juice concentrate, cornstarch, lemon juice, xanthan gum. Hmmmm …. could I realistically make xanthan gum or cornstarch in my kitchen? Maybe the cornstarch, in theory at least, and that’s good enough. Done. After reading the definition of xanthan gum though, I’m not so sure on this one. Sounds like something for Bill Nye the Science Guy. But I do use xanthan gum frequently in gluten free baking and actually had a bag sitting on the counter from Bob’s Red Mill. Bob wouldn’t lead me astray now, would he? Since the challenge definition includes “an ingredient you’d never use” as a no-go and I do, occasionally, use xanthan gum I made the call: good. A stretch perhaps but moving on.
That evening presented a professional dilemma in the form of white refined sugar. Technically, sugar is out except I’m a pastry chef – we use refined white sugar. A lot. We also use turbinado, honey, muscavado and other less-refined sweetners but the white stuff is our go to for most recipes as was the case at work that night. After a little internal deliberation I decided that, as a professional, I have to taste my work. Sugar, in moderation, is going to have to be OK. It’s just how it is; a girls gotta work. But when I’m dragging late at night, I’ll skip the Coke or Red Bull I usually reach for.
And that was just Day One. Day Two involved an accidental piece of bacon of which I’m rather suspicious and need to look into further. Day Three involved 10 minutes reading pasta packages at the grocery store. I had NO idea that dried pasta had a bunch of stuff in it. One well known brand may have been 10 for $10 but you also got some crap with that buck. Instead I paid an extra 40 cents for pasta that contained 100% semolina flour. This makes sense as processed food is usually highly subsidized and therefore cheap. And cheap isn’t always a good thing. Learning as I go here, folks.
Am I sticking to this challenge 100%? Can I?` Well, I’m trying. I’ve made a few accidental ingestions in 3 days but my intentions are true. Fact is, when you think about it, cutting everything that’s the slightest bit processed from your diet is a difficult and as I see it, that’s the whole point. When you really start looking at your food you realize what you’re eating and it’s not always good nor what you might think. Take last night for example. I was exhausted after work and wanted something quick, which is not always easy when you have to start from scratch. I grabbed some beautiful sharp cheddar but as I was reaching for the crackers I read the label. Indeed, they contained more than I had bargained for. So I decided to skip the crackers and cut up an apple instead. Much better and frankly, a tastier choice anyway.
So will you join me in giving this a whirl? I’m not sure how I’ll do in the end but it’s certainly making me think more about what goes down the gullet. The true challenge will be what happens when I go to Epcot at the end of the month for the annual Food & Wine Festival. Pitfalls abound and that place is a pile of delicious crap food if there ever was. Uh oh.
Unprocessed October 2011 – sign up for the challenge and see all the rules and discussions too. And let me know how you’re doing. I have a feeling, I’ll need some support as I waddle through a lot of grey areas on this one.