I’ve been thinking for some time about giving up processed foods – at least as an experiment. The time has never seemed right, but with Spring on the way, and Lent around the corner, it seemed a very Lenten sort of exercise in food discipline.
Hang on, what do you mean by processed food?
When I’ve discussed this idea with friends in the past, one question arises, sooner or later. ‘What do you consider to be processed? I mean, all cooked food is processed. Even flour is processed!’ And this is a very fair question. Everything apart from raw fruit, vegetables, meat and fish has been processed to some extent – arguably, even those have, unless you start with a live chicken or dig the potato from the ground yourself.
What I’ve tried to do is construct a logical ‘traffic light’ system that categorises foods purely by their degree of processing. I’m not making any moral judgement here, or asserting that one category of foods is healthier, better, or more environmentally sound than any other. This isn’t by any means a ‘clean eating’ thing (I think that’s a rather pernicious fad, and well past it’s sell-by date). It’s purely a list of categories sorted by – if you’ll forgive the expression – increasing ‘buggered-aboutness’.
There are definitely other criteria that we might want to be considering, as thoughtful, ethical consumers, and I refer to some of these in the annotations to the categories. They will colour the degree to which I’m inclined to be militant about the degree of processing. For instance, freezing, drying, and canning foods – all undoubtedly forms of processing – significantly increase the shelf life and preserve the nutritional value of foods, reduce food waste, and allow us access to fresh produce all year around without needing it to be flown half way around the globe. I would rather eat frozen peas or tinned tomatoes in February than fresh ones flown in from Kenya or produced in an artificially lit and heated glasshouse somewhere.
I’m not making an argument here that additives / preservatives / flavourings and so on are necessarily and axiomatically bad (though many undoubtedly are) – just that they are more likely to disappear invisibly into certain sorts of food than others, along with trans fats, invert sugar syrups, and artificial sweeteners, and I like to know what’s on my plate. For me, the most worrying thing about the 21st century food chain is that it introduces black boxes, and unknowns, into what we’re eating. When food is a commodity, we lose touch with our food and our farmers. As a planet, we have never been more divorced and isolated from the origins of our food. Making a point of starting from simple ingredients, and shopping, cooking, and eating thoughtfully, is a great place to start in reconnecting ourselves to the food on our plates.
Embarking on this challenge at this time of year means that I can’t cheat by drawing heavily on my veggie garden – we’re fully in the ‘hungry gap’ and there’s pretty much nothing growing just now. Where I will be benefiting from our usual lifestyle is that I have a good stock of home-made preserves – pickles, jams, chutneys and so on – which, assuming they were made from simple ingredients, I consider absolutely fair game.
Why are you doing this?
As thoughtful consumers, there are plenty of important questions we might want to ask about the food we eat –
- Where was it grown, and how was it stored and transported?
- What resources – water, soil etc – and other inputs such as fuel, insecticides and herbicides were used in its production?
- What are the consequences of that for the local and global environment?
- Who produced it, and were those farmers able to work safely and be paid fairly?
- Is it good for us, or will eating it have negative consequences for us as consumers?
- Is it good value for money?
Different people will have different priorities. But whatever is important to you when it come to food, we are deluding ourselves if we think we can start to answer any of these important questions without first being able to answer a much more basic one. And that question is –
“WHAT AM I EATING?”
When we eat processed and highly manufactured foods, we cannot possibly answer this question. And without that answer, any attempt to answer any of the others is meaningless. Stripping out processed foods from our diets is the first, essential step towards being able to make good decisions about food. If we don’t know what’s in the food on our plates, we can’t possibly make good choices about it – whatever ‘good’ means for us, at any given time in our lives.
It’s not Lent until the 1st of March, so why the preview?
Well, I’m asking you to argue with me, I guess. Point out important food groups that I’ve missed, or places where you think my categories are not working or where I’ve introduced false-equivalences. I think it’s very unlikely that I’ve got this right first off. So, folks, what have I forgotten or got wrong?
Unprocessed Lent – food categories
Green – Fresh foods
Permitted – first choice if home-grown or locally produced and in season, otherwise substitution with yellow or amber items may be preferred.
- Fresh whole fruit & vegetables
- Fresh whole identifiable pieces of meat or fish
- Fresh egg
Yellow – Single-ingredient foods simply processed for preservation purposes
Permitted – in my view these are no ‘worse’ and in some respects more desirable than fresh – they make foods available out of season without causing dramatic food miles, without significant deterioration in food value, and reduce food waste.
- Frozen meat, fish and vegetables (otherwise as above)
- Pasteurised whole milk
- Whole grains (brown rice, pearl barley etc)
- Un-roasted seeds and nuts
- Dried pulses (peas, beans, lentils etc)
- Cold-pressed (extra virgin) vegetable oils
Amber – these are still primarily single-ingredient foods, but have been processed more heavily.
Permitted – these foods may be starting to lose some food value compared to their fresh or unprocessed equivalents, or have had small additions of other ingredients. In exchange, they often store better than fresh, reducing food miles and food waste. I can’t see how we can do without them and there’s nothing here that would have bothered my grandmother.
- Tinned vegetables in their own juice (eg tomatoes)
- Dried fruit & vegetables
- Roasted nuts and seeds
- Lightly processed whole grains – white rice, rolled oats etc
- Wholemeal flours
- Fruit juices (fresh or pasteurised, but preservative free)
- Skimmed & semi-skimmed milk (pasteurised)
- Unsalted butter
- Animal fats (lard, suet)
- Natural unsweetened yoghurt
- Maple syrup
- Coffee beans roasted (& ground)
- Loose-leaf tea
- Unsweetened cocoa powder
- Dried herbs and spices
- Sea salt
Amber+ – similar to amber but more processed
Substitute – where possible
- White flour
- Refined sugars
- Minced meats
Orange – foods created by traditional preservation techniques such as fermentation, curing and smoking. These are foods with amazing, complex flavours; the very stuff human food culture is made of.
With Care – source is everything here, so buy carefully, from small – ideally local – makers using traditional techniques (actual smoke, rather than liquid, for example), look for PDO products, consider alternatives & home-made. The industrially manufactured versions of these foods fall into the ‘black’ group.
- Cured and/or naturally smoked meats & fish (anchovies, bacon, smoked haddock)
- Real ale & cider
- Natural wine and cider vinegars
- Lacto-fermented foods (kimchi, sauerkraut)
Red – multi-ingredient manufactured foods. These are foods that our grandparents would have recognised, and may have bought from outside the home (at least some of the time). They can often be a source of hidden ingredients (salts, sugars, fats & additives)
Avoid – unless home-made
- Bread & bakery products
- Fresh & dried pasta and noodles
- Prepared ‘deli-style’ meats ready to eat
- Sausages, burgers
- Jams, pickles, chutneys
- Tinned fruit and vegetables in brine or syrup
- Tinned fish
- Squashes, cordials, and flavoured syrups
- Manufactured condiments (mustard, ketchup, sweet chilli sauce, mayonnaise etc)
- Tea bags
Black – convenience, industrially manufactured foods. Our grandparents would have been mystified by many of these, or, while recognising them, would never have thought to buy them ‘off the shelf’. These sorts of foods are where all the hidden sugars, salts, and oils (not to mention invert sugar syrups, trans fats, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, flavour enhancers, and so on) sneak into our diets. Obviously, all of these foods made at home from lower category ingredients are fine!
- Any ‘orange’ food produced industrially
- Ready meals (including prepared sandwiches)
- Convenience fruit & veg (bag salad, peeled / chopped fruit & veg)
- Prepared pizza
- ‘Chorleywood process’ bread
- Breakfast cereals
- Prepared sauces (pasta, curry etc) and raw foods coated in them
- Tinned prepared foods (baked beans, pasta in sauce etc)
- UHT or homogenised milks
- Solvent-extracted vegetable oils
- Margarine and similar non-dairy spreads
- Non-dairy creamer
- Sugar-free sweetners
- Fruit juices containing preservatives
- Prepared soups (fresh & tinned)
- Instant noodles & soups
- Sweet & savoury pies, scotch eggs
- Crisps, biscuits, prepared snack foods
- Sweets, chocolates, etc
- Carbonated drinks
- Instant coffee
- ‘Coffee pod’ coffee (Nespresso, Tassimo)
- Stock cubes & gravy granules
- Packet sauces & seasoning mixes
‘Tricky’ foods – additives and additions traditionally used in kitchens, and manufactured condiments in small quantities.
Additives / additions – our grandparents would have been familiar with all of these, even though, as kitchen ingredients, some have fallen out of common use. I plan to continue to use them when appropriate. Yes, some of them even have E-numbers.
- Bicarbonate of soda
- Baking powder
- Dried yeast
- Citric acid [E330]
- Sodium nitrite [E250](saltpetre, used in tiny quantities in curing salt)
- Sodium metabisulfite [E223] (Campden, used as a preservative and sterilising agent in brewing)
Condiments – while noting these are ‘red’ foods, they may be used occasionally, while looking for home-made alternatives.
- Soy sauce
- Worcestershire sauce
- Balsamic vinegar
- Ketchup, brown sauce, sweet chilli sauce
It’s just under a week until we start. Looking forward to your comments!
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