Defining “Unprocessed”

Gin Still

With just a few days to go before we start our month of no processed foods whatsoever, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the definition of “unprocessed” — and whether specific foods are or are not okay during this challenge.

Before I go any further, let me reiterate that you need to do what’s right for you. No one is watching over your shoulder, and just as all food is intensely personal, so too is this challenge.

Likewise, if you feel you need to make any exceptions, by all means feel free to do so. Just make sure it’s a deliberate choice whenever possible.

My definition may not match your definition — and that’s okay. In fact, I encourage disagreement and discussion, since that’s the best way for us to learn together.

I also recognize that my definition isn’t perfect.  My goal here isn’t “perfection” — it’s more to help spark a dialogue, increasing awareness about how our food is made, what we’re putting into our bodies, and how we relate to our food.  (I’m also hoping to shed that last bit of pudge and finally get my six-pack abs, but that’s another story.)

Having said all that, here’s my working definition of unprocessed. I call it The Kitchen Test:

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.

It doesn’t mean that you have to be able to make the food — but that the food could be made in a home kitchen by someone who knows what they’re doing.  If it needs high-powered, industrial equipment, or could only be made in a laboratory, then it’s out.

Here’s a good example.  Look at the ingredients for a PowerBar Triple Threat® Chocolate Peanut Butter Crisp:


I’ve bolded any ingredients that I’m pretty sure you can’t make at home (or without some sort of industrial process).  Compare that to the ingredients of a Cashew Cookie Lara Bar:


I’m absolutely certain that a cook with average skills could make something comparable to the Lara bar in your kitchen.  But the PowerBar?  Not so much.

Okay, so let me toss out a few other specific foods that I’ve been asked about:

Chocolate. Yup, it’s okay, because it’s possible to make chocolate at home.  However, if the store-bought chocolate contains extra emulsifiers, flavorings, or other additives that you wouldn’t use if you were make it at home, it’s off the list.

Coffee. Yup. Try this fun project: Buy some green coffee beans (they’ve already been cleaned for you), and toast them in your popcorn air popper.  (Skip the little yellow, blue, or pink packets and the powdered creamer.)  Or you could grow your own coffee plant, and then wet-process the beans yourself.  Totally doable at home (how much time do you have?)

Beer. Yup, I’ve got quite a few friends who make beer at home (one even grows his own hops — he makes truly incredible beers. Just saying.)

Wine. Yes, I’ve got quite a few friends who make wine at home. There is the question of sulfites, though. My winemaker friends usually add sulfites (sourced from winemaking suppliers, not from your regular grocery story, I believe) — so you’ll need to decide for yourself if you’ll seek out sulfite-free wines.

[Wine Update: Please read Dave’s clarification in the comments.]

Vodka, Gin, and other Spirits. Although I don’t recommend distilling your own (and it may be illegal), it’s certainly possible to do this at home.  Just skip the gimmicky flavored ones and I’m sure you’ll be fine.  Of course, it depends on how picky you want to be. You may wish to consider what sugars/starches are being used to feed the fermentation process.  If you want to research this some more, please report back!

Bacon and Sausage. As long as there are no additives (nitrates, flavorings, etc.), and it’s a high-quality product, you’re probably okay here. Maybe this is a good opportunity to get to know a local butcher.

“Veggie Burgers “and “Fake Meats.” Most of these should be avoided, as they usually contain a lot of textured vegetable protein (which I’m almost certain you couldn’t make at home).  But if you are in a pinch, you can probably find something that’ll work.  You’ll really need to read the ingredient list:  An All-American Flame-Grilled Boca Burger is definitely out. Dr. Praeger’s Gluten Free California Veggie Burger is certainly better, though it’s got a couple of ingredients that are questionable. (Personally, I’m going to do my best to avoid these).

Cooking Oils. It is possible to press your own oils at home, though it would be a rather inefficient process. I would expect that nut oils would be easier (just grind them up and let them separate, like your jar of peanut butter, right?).  Also, these old oil press instructions and drawings are fun.

Salt. Depending on how refined it is, this may or may not be okay. Stick with the natural, unprocessed salts such as the fabulous Fleur De Sel.

Sugar. Usually, the term “sugar” refers to bleached table sugar, those fine-white granulated crystals that come from sugar cane or sugar beets. The bleaching is done with sulfur dioxide, an ingredient that hopefully isn’t in your pantry.  Next!

Turbinado Sugar (“Raw” Sugar) is the same stuff — but it hasn’t been bleached.  I think it would be possible to make turbinado sugar crystals at home, if you had some sugar cane stalks ready to go.  Although there are a couple of steps in the commercial process that you couldn’t do, I’m guessing you could still get the crystals if you’re patient enough (perhaps a countertop food dehydrator would help evaporation).

[Sugar Update: Please read MrJackHonky’s thoughts on sugar in the comments.]

Honey. Good to go; in fact, this is probably the most “unprocessed” sweetener available.

Agave Nectar. You’re probably okay with this one. Some agave is simply heated (at relatively low temperatures).  It may also  be enzymatically processed.  Any agave experts out there want to weigh in?

Corn Syrup and High Fructose Corn Syrup. Both of these are too complicated to make at home.  Off the list.

Flour. As long as it’s 100% whole grain flour, it’s okay. You could certainly grind whole grains in your kitchen. As Bob’s Red Mill says, one pound in, one pound out. Refined flours, however, have had the germ and bran removed (leaving just the fluffy endosperm) — and are likely bleached or brominated, and may be enriched with nutrients that had been previously removed.

[Flour Update: Refined flour, as long as it’s un-bleached and un-enriched, actually would pass the Kitchen Test.  Check out this flour followup in the forums.]

Corn Meal and Masa. Again, if these are made with the whole grain, then it’s all good.

Butter. Yup, you could certainly make real butter at home, if you’re so inclined.

Cheese. Yup.  In fact, I already make cheese at home.  Skip the “pasteurized processed” cheeses, or “cheese foods,” of course.

Nut Butters. Look at the ingredient list.  If it’s just “Nuts & Salt” (or better yet, just Nuts), then it’s great.  But if it’s got stabilizers, sweeteners, and oils, it’s a no-no (Skippy, I’m looking at you!)

Spices. Yup, these are okay. You could certainly grow them at home, dry them, and then grind them as needed.

Breads. Again, it’s all about the ingredient list.  The best option, of course, is to make it at home.  But if it’s store-bought, read the ingredient list.  The flour should be whole grain (avoid these pitfalls), and there shouldn’t be fillers, preservatives, artificial sweeteners (yes, they sometimes add those to 100% whole wheat breads.  Oroweat, I’m looking at you and your acesulfame potassium!)

Okay, I think that covers most of the biggies.  I’m sure I’ve missed some, so please ask in the comments. Also, if you disagree with any of my conclusions, or can add any other bits of advice, we’d all love to hear about it!

If you haven’t taken the October: Unprocessed pledge yet, now’s the time!

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Jean at The Delightful Repast
October 1, 2010 4:47 am

Andrew, great list! My own list does include unbleached all-purpose flour, simply because I’m going on a slightly different definition of unprocessed that includes a food item that is a single ingredient. So flour, yes. Any type of “mix” natural or not, no. And ‘no’ to any type of store-bought bar, even with just two ingredients. Also, ‘no’ to sausage unless I make it myself. Of course, a proper cup of tea is always on my “allowed” list, no matter what the criteria is!

September 30, 2010 11:40 pm

After looking over this list, I feel more confident about taking up the Unprocessed Pledge for October. 🙂 Haven’t eaten much processed food for awhile now! But of course the occasional one slips in here and there. Well, October I shall try my best to stick to whole, unprocessed stuff.

September 30, 2010 9:20 pm

I was so excited about this challenge I started 2 days early! So I have a head start, but I wanted to ease myself into it instead of bombarding myself with an intimidating new eating plan all at once. I’ve followed a similar plan in the past but fell away from it… and one thing I’ve noticed that I forgot about is how much less I eat now with fresh food! When I eat crap, I eat so much more because it’s just going right through me because my body isn’t processing it properly. And all those low-blood-sugar moments with shakiness and crabbiness? Gone. I feel so much better already 🙂
I must confess, though, I cannot seem to convince myself to give up my coffee creamer. So I’m not perfect. But I’m better 🙂

Carol (CGtheFoodie)
September 30, 2010 8:57 pm

LOVE LOVE LOVE your definitions. And the clarifications on wine (wow that’s a lot of knowledge I was just blessed with). I am trying to do research on seitan and whether it would qualify. I found “how-tos” to make your own but then I get confused about the different flours needed. Maybe another reader can help? I looked it up originally because I found out how you can make bread flour but it calls for using wheat gluten.

Dough Monkey
Dough Monkey
September 27, 2011 10:43 am

Seitan in it’s most raw form is made by taking any wheat flour (though high protein flours like bread flour are easier) and “rinsing” the starches out of it. I have done this just by mixing a soft bread dough (flour and water) in a large bowl, than putting the bowl under the kitchen tap. Fill the bowl almost to the top with water than work the dough with your hands, it will feel like it’s falling all apart but that’s what you want. When the water gets really milky slowly add more water till it clears up. Rework the dough. Repeat, and repeat, and repeat. At some point the water will continue to run clear and you will have a small (there is a lot of starch in flour) ball of gluten (seitan). P.S. Cake flour WILL NOT work (not only does it have a low protien content to… Read more »

September 30, 2010 8:02 pm

Thanks for the tip, Andrew. I have seen that book mentioned here and there. I will see if I can get my hands on it.

September 30, 2010 5:41 pm

I like this challenge! The trickiest part may be the flour. I often make my own bread using bread flour. I’ve not had very good results with whole grain flours.

Jennifer Soucy
October 1, 2010 1:34 pm
Reply to  Andrew

People were sifting and bolting flour for white or bread type flours LONG before modern processing – it was just a question of sifting it through fine linen. SO something like an unbleached bread flour, while not as *healthy* as a 100% whole grain, would be entirely reasonable within the terms of your challenge, assuming it wasn’t enriched.

September 29, 2010 4:02 pm

Re: Sweeteners Honey can be processed, stripping it of most of it’s enzymes. You want to be sure to get raw honey which is definitely better for you than the cheap honey in the bear that you get at the grocery story. I would suggest looking for a local honey at your Farmer’s market. Also agave nectar is available processed and raw. Raw agave nectar is heated to a much lower temperature while being concentrated so it still has the enzymes in tact (which makes it suitable for those who follow a raw food diet). I would suggest tracking down raw agave nectar if you want to use it. Since most table sugar is highly processed, for those people who want something sweet for the month of October, there are many other “unprocessed” sweeteners available. These is the aforementioned raw agave nectar and raw honey. There is also maple syrup… Read more »

Grant @ Grampa's Honey
October 7, 2010 1:33 pm
Reply to  Andrew

I total agree – most honey consumed in the US is NOT unprocessed. They process the crap out of it until they can get to be the generic sweetener that you find in the plastic bear at your grocery store.

Look for “raw” honey. Some will also say “unheated” – that’s good too.

Even better if you know a beekeeper (farmer’s markets are a good place to meet some of them) get the honey there.

Beyond the chemical composition – you can TASTE the difference. Unprocessed honey has a complex flavor that will depend on the flower source and the region of where the honey was made.

September 29, 2010 11:40 am

As a home winemaker, here is the story on sulfates: All wine has sulfates. As does beer or any other fermented beverage. Sulfates are produced by the yeast as a natural by-product of fermentation and have the handy side effect of inhibiting the growth of other microbes in that environment. Essentially, it is one of the yeast organism’s natural protections against competition. It is effective for the purpose that the yeast needs, to inhibit growth of other organisms during the replication and respiration (a.k.a fermentation) phases of the yeast’s growth cycle. After the fermentation is complete, the yeast dies and the sulfate levels drop. As the sulfate levels drop, the risk of spoilage increases. Spoilage can consist of an infection by Acetobacter that will generate acetic acid (a.k.a. vinegar). Another common form of spoilage is an infection by Lactobacillus that will generate lactic acid creating a sour flavor in the… Read more »

September 30, 2011 10:37 am
Reply to  Dave

Dave – I believe you are confusing sulfites and sulfates. Most wine has sulfites. Sulfates are what our body converts sulfites into in order to make them non toxic. I have heard before that “all wine has sulfites” and it simply isn’t true. There are two different categories of no sulfite wine. The first is “no sulfites added” and you are correct – the fermentation process does create some sulfites in this case – but as that would occur naturally, it should be ok for unprocessed October. The second is “no sulfites detected” or “no detectable sulfites”. These have been tested and are at less than 1 part per million, essentially sulfite free. Orleans Hill, Frey and Badger Mountain all make several varieties of no sulfite detected wines. As far as the quality, I have only had sulfite free wines for the past couple of years since I was diagnosed… Read more »

September 29, 2010 8:49 am

Great ideas, I’m going to stick coffee that my local roaster roasts. I have a five day trip to montreal, upstate ny and portland, me in the middle of the month. This is going to be a challenging journey, but so excited!

Not a fan of lara bars, but honestly, airline food sucks, so I’ll be buying some.

Thanks so much for doing this.

September 28, 2010 10:07 pm

So you know I love me some LARA BARS, but let me introduce you to Clif C. While I’m devoted to LARA, I’ve added Clif C to the mix every once in a while – they have a few more ingredients than LARA (including organic juice concentrate – which may or may not be an unprocessed no-no), but they are tasty and a nice change of pace. I really like the blueberry. Check ’em out at Whole Foods if you’re interested.

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