I get asked a lot of questions about how to define unprocessed, and how my definition applies to specific ingredients and foods. I’ve touched on much of this before (see: Defining Unprocessed 2010 and Defining Unprocessed 2011), and this time around, I thought it would be helpful to write a separate post on each topic. It’ll help us keep track of things and make it easier to refer back.
The Kitchen Test
Because there are always so many questions about how to apply the Kitchen Test, I figure that’s a good place to start:
Unprocessed food is any food that could be made by a person with reasonable skill in a home kitchen with whole-food ingredients.
The Kitchen Test is how I define “unprocessed.” It works well for me, and many people find it works well for them, too. But it may not fit with your definition of “unprocessed,” and that’s totally okay. In fact, I encourage disagreement and discussion, since that’s the best way for us to learn together.
I also recognize that the Kitchen Test isn’t perfect. My goal here isn’t “perfection” – it’s more to 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.
The Kitchen Test doesn’t mean that you have to make the food. Nor does it mean that you necessarily need to be able to make the food. It just requires that the food could be made in a home kitchen by someone who knows what they’re doing, using whole-food ingredients.
So we also have to define “Whole-Food Ingredients.”
I start by trying to figure out if I could grow/create/produce that ingredient at home, at least in theory. If the answer is yes, then it’s good to go. But if it’s made through an industrial or complicated chemical process that couldn’t be done in a kitchen, or could only be made “in a laboratory,” then it’s out.
The whole idea, ultimately, is to consider each ingredient in your food: How it’s produced, where it comes from, and whether its benefits outweigh its detriments.
We’ll talk more about specific ingredients over the next few weeks, but in the meantime, just remember that anything you could make at home, from ingredients that you could make at home, will pass the test.
While cooking from scratch is obviously the best choice, it’s not always feasible or practical. Most people (self included!) are not going to prepare everything from scratch, especially if you’ve got a job, school, kids, travel…
So what to do when you buy packaged food? The answer is simply to consider every ingredient separately.
My favorite example is comparing two “energy bars.” Here are the ingredients for the PowerBar Triple Threat® Chocolate Peanut Butter Crisp:
CORN SYRUP, SOY CRISPS (SOY PROTEIN ISOLATE, RICE FLOUR, ALKALIZED COCOA), CHOCOLATEY COATING (SUGAR, FRACTIONATED PALM KERNEL OIL, COCOA, WHEY, NONFAT MILK, SOY LECITHIN, NATURAL VANILLA FLAVOR), WHOLE OATS, DRY ROASTED PEANUTS, SOY PROTEIN ISOLATE, INULIN (FROM CHICORY), NATURAL FLAVORS (CONTAINS PEANUT, MILK, SOY LECITHIN), RICE CRISPS (MILLED RICE, SUGAR, SALT, BARLEY MALT), SALTED PEANUT BUTTER,VEGETABLE GLYCERIN, AND LESS THAN 2% OF PEANUT FLOUR, ALMOND BUTTER, SALT, SOY LECITHIN, MINERALS: CALCIUM PHOSPHATE, POTASSIUM PHOSPHATE, FERROUS FUMARATE (IRON), VITAMINS: ASCORBIC ACID (VITAMIN C), VITAMIN B6 HYDROCHLORIDE, RIBOFLAVIN (VITAMIN B2), THIAMINE MONONITRATE (VITAMIN B1).
I’ve bolded any ingredients that I’m pretty sure you can’t make at home (some of these are debatable, but I’ll leave that for the next few posts). Compare that to the ingredients of a Cashew Cookie Larabar:
I’m absolutely certain that a cook with average skills could make something comparable to the Larabar in your kitchen. But the PowerBar? Not so much.
(Sidenote: Disappointingly, not all Larabars pass the kitchen test now. They’ve started using “natural flavors” in some of them, and some of the new “Uber” bars also use brown rice syrup, which you probably couldn’t make at home.)
Eating out is probably the hardest part of the challenge. Since you don’t know the ingredients, you just have to do the best you can. Some dishes are more likely to pass the kitchen test. Here are some strategies I use — if you have other suggestions, please share them in the comments:
- Talk to your waiter. It’s totally okay to tell your waiter that you’re eating only unprocessed food, and ask him or her questions about the food they serve. You’re about to put it in your body - you have every right to know what it is. If the waiter doesn’t know, ask to speak with the Chef. Just remember to be friendly and polite.
- Avoid large, chain restaurants. They often have lots of additives, stabilizers, conditioners, and preservatives in their foods (since they’re rarely made fresh). Obviously that’s a generalization, but you’re usually better off at a small, family- or chef-owned restaurant.
- Find a local, “farm to table” restaurant, if you can. More and more like-minded restaurants are popping up all over the country, so seek them out… and let them know about the challenge!
- A Fresh Salad is usually a good choice. It’s the dressing you’ve got to watch out for. A good choice is Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar, both of which pass the Kitchen Test.
- Pasta may pass the test — if it’s made with unbleached, unenriched flour (if you can find 100% whole wheat pasta at a restaurant, you’ll be in good shape). Then you just need to ask about the ingredients in the sauce. Olive oil and garlic, anyone?
- Cooked Vegetables usually work well.
- If you eat meat, that’s usually a good choice, depending on how it’s prepared. (Again, watch the sauce.)
- Tofu and tempeh usually pass the kitchen test. (Seitan is a gray area… It can be made at home from wheat flour, but at the commercial level it’s usually made with vital wheat gluten).
The Deliberate Exception Clause
I encourage you to consider exceptions, if any, you will make to your definition of unprocessed. The idea is to decide on any exceptions before we start, if possible. It’s not there for you to use your exceptions as a way to cheat in the moment. Instead, it’s about making an informed decision, in advance, about a particular food.
For example, Matty and I have decided that Vital Wheat Gluten would be an acceptable ingredient for us, because we’d rather eat whole grains breads (usually baked ourselves) that’s made with some extra gluten, than to eat breads made with refined grains. We carefully considered it in advance, and decided that the “pros” outweighed the “cons.”
It’s also okay to make an exception for something you feel you need to do to make it possible for you to complete the challenge at all. For example, maybe you’re a five-cans-of-soda-a-day person, and have decided that for October, you’re going to limit yourself to just one can of soda each day.
Remember that this is fundamentally an awareness exercise, and ultimately, you need to do what’s right for you, and what’s going to work for you.
If you haven’t taken the October Unprocessed pledge yet, please do! And then encourage your friends to join in — it’s a lot more fun that way!
Photo by Matthew Paulson.