A few years ago, journalist Megan Kimble set out to explore what processed food is and what “unprocessed” really means. For an entire year, she not only tried to avoid all processed foods, but she worked to produce her own food — from milling whole wheat berries to make flour to slaughtering an animal. In her new book, Unprocessed: My City Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food, she shares what she learned. The Knowledge at Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111 recently sat down to talk with Kimble about the experience.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: You not only tried to eat foods that were as unprocessed as possible, but worked to produce them, as well, in a variety of different ways…. It’s interesting, your book is partly about finding that line where you felt comfortable with the foods that you were eating.
Megan Kimble: Most people ask me what makes food processed, and the answer is all food is processed. Cooking is a kind of process. So is preserving. For most of human history, processing was a really good thing. But only in the past 50 years has that maybe gone haywire. Most of my book is trying to figure out where I as an individual eater want to draw the line. What makes food too processed for me?
Knowledge at Wharton: What are some of the examples of a food that you won’t eat because it is seemingly too processed? What are some of the ones that you do feel comfortable with?
Kimble: I started my year with the idea that a food was unprocessed if I could theoretically make it in my home kitchen. For example, I did, in fact, buy whole wheat berries, and I had a little hand-crank grain mill, and I ground [the berries] up into whole grain flour. So I ate whole grain flour. But I couldn’t at home take that a step further and make refined flour because I didn’t have industrial processing capacity or chemicals, so I didn’t eat refined white flour.
The same is true for the difference in [sugar], for example. I know a lot of people here in Tucson, where I live, who have honeybees in their backyard. You gather that honey, and that’s a natural source of sweetness. Compare that to refined white sugar, which…, to me, was too processed.
“If we, as individual consumers, refrain from buying these foods, food companies will simply stop producing them.”
Knowledge at Wharton: This is something that you have been very interested in for quite some time.
Kimble: I came to processed food because I had been interested in how our food systems impact the climate. I’ve read what many of us have read about industrial agriculture and how large corporations are influencing our food system. I had been thinking about that for a long time, but didn’t really know what to do about that. Eating unprocessed was my way in. It was this attempt. I lived in a city. I lived in this tiny little apartment. I made a graduate student’s salary. So, it was my way of asking, what can I do? What can any one person do to change the food system? The answer to me is eat different; buy a different food.
Knowledge at Wharton: What was the biggest challenge that you had over the course of a year?
Kimble: The biggest challenge was the social one: being an unprocessed eater in a world that is full of processed food and going out to eat with friends, going to conferences, going to work events. I would say, “Hey, I’m actually not going to eat that pizza, so sorry….” I was lucky to have a really amazing, supportive group of friends and coworkers who didn’t mind my funny eating habits, but that was certainly hard to explain.
Knowledge at Wharton: Eating foods that have very little processing to them is one thing, but as you mentioned, you were making your own flour. In fact, I think you said in the book the first thing you made was a loaf of bread. How difficult of a challenge was it?
Kimble: That was certainly time-consuming. Part of the reason that I wanted to try to do all these things at home was to understand how these foods were made. I grew up, as I said, in a city. I grew up very disconnected from the source of my food. Part of that experiment was to figure out how is bread made, how is yogurt cultured, how does one make cheese? By trying these things at home, I can understand how to better draw that line for myself when I actually wanted to go to the store and buy a loaf of bread or when I wanted to outsource some food production to a producer in my community.
Knowledge at Wharton: How tough was the transition for you? You write in the book about the night before you started this. You went on a mini-binge with all the other foods that you had in your house.
Kimble: I sure did. There were some foods that were really hard to cut. Sugar was the one that was really, really hard to refrain from. I have a raging sweet tooth, and sugar [is] in all of our packaged foods. You start reading ingredient labels on mustard or salad dressing or marinara sauce, and there’s sugar in that. So it was really hard to stay away from sugar. I had to find creative ways to fulfill that craving. So I made my own chocolate. I learned how to bake differently. I made a lot of baked goods at home so that I could have little treats for myself…. The idea was not about deprivation. It was [to ask,] how can I find a new way to experience food?
Knowledge at Wharton: How did you get around it in terms of just making your own chocolate?…
Kimble: It’s really not hard once you figure out how to do it. You need cocoa butter and cocoa powder, and there are a lot of local businesses that sell that. I used local honey, and I learned how to make it at home. Similarly, I learned how to make chocolate chip cookies, which are my favorite food, using whole grain flour and butter and whole foods.
A side effect of that is when you are eating foods that are made with whole or close to whole ingredients, they are much more filling, and they are much more satisfying. When I previously would eat foods that are made with refined sugar or white flour, they don’t fill you up, so you can eat a lot more of them. But when you’re eating foods that are “not processed,” you can eat less and still feel satisfied.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also in the book talk about the produce industry. Some people think that there isn’t a ton of processing in that area, but there is a good bit of processing that goes on within the produce-makers of the United States and as well as other countries.
Kimble: It’s an incredibly resource-intensive industry…. The processing is less about that particular piece of produce than the industry surrounding that produce. How many resources does it require to get that orange, that watermelon from the ground, from some place like Mexico or Chile to a Safeway or supermarket on your street? It turns out it’s an incredibly resource-intensive process with lots of people. Its survival depends on pesticides, refrigeration, and semi trucks, which make me nervous in terms of how sustainable and how secure that system is.
Knowledge at Wharton: How did it change your eating habits? For example, the times of the day that you might have eaten beforehand, did that change with this change in your lifestyle?
Kimble: It changed it only in the sense that I learned how to plan ahead. I knew largely when I got up in the morning what I was going to eat that day because there is some amount of preparation that you have to do beforehand. I still packed my lunch for work every day. On the weekends or on Mondays, I make a big crock pot full of beans, a big thing full of whole grains and then I have whatever vegetables from my farm share. I can quickly assemble unprocessed meals for myself. It just requires more planning.
“When you see the impact that [food production] has on the environment, it’s harder to continue to maintain blissful ignorance and buy that cheap milk, buy that cheap meat.”
Knowledge at Wharton: How much have the stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s either helped or hurt the whole process with the food industry?
Kimble: That’s a great question. Some stores, like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, have this aura of being natural. But once you sort of burrow in and start reading ingredient labels, you realize how many chemicals and added ingredients are still in those foods. It’s really important to scrutinize what you’re buying and eating, even if you’re shopping at a place like Whole Foods. They also sell foods that are really great and don’t have added ingredients. You have to do your homework. You can’t just go in and think that this store is going to serve your best interests.
Knowledge at Wharton: It is interesting because your story is about yourself and the change that one person made. You take time throughout the book to give tips and relate ideas for how people could potentially change their lifestyle to maybe have a diet that is less processed.
Kimble: Yes, absolutely. The idea is that this is my experience, but my hope is that people read this book and realize how not transparent our food system is and how they, as consumers, can make different choices. We all are empowered to make those choices. We just have to decide to do it.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think that we will see a drastic shift in years to come in the types of foods people will eat? Or is the food industry, the restaurant industry and grocery stores, too big of a gorilla to try to defeat at this point?
Kimble: Since I started my unprocessed year four years ago, things have already changed in the industry. For example, there was an article in Fortune magazine earlier this spring about how big food corporations are changing the food that they are selling to consumers. Consumers simply are not buying processed and packaged food. If we, as individual consumers, refrain from buying these foods, food companies will simply stop producing them. We have a huge opportunity as consumers to change the way the system works, simply by our purchasing power.
Knowledge at Wharton: But it is a tough thing to try and break through for a lot of people, especially when the options for unprocessed foods are tucked away in a small area, and it’s hard to get to them. You have to walk through all the other types of foods, as well.
Kimble: I certainly agree that the odds are stacked against us. These corporations have incredibly sophisticated marketing techniques and resources behind getting us to buy the foods that they want us to buy, which are high value: chips and processed foods. But I do think that [unprocessed] foods are there, and they are available to us if we just seek them out.
Knowledge at Wharton: Salt is another thing that you talked about in the book. It’s an additive, and obviously a lot was made years ago about the levels of salt that people put in their diet. Tell us a little bit about your view on salt because it does have some positives along the way.
Kimble: Salt is one of those funny ingredients that I think has been demonized recently. Salt, for thousands of years, has been a preservative. Before we had artificial refrigeration, that’s how we preserved food. Being conscious of how much is in your food is the important step. When I cut out processed food, I suddenly incredibly reduced my intake of salt. Ninety percent of the salt that we eat comes from processed food. Once you’ve cut all that stuff out, you are free to sprinkle it liberally on your sautés and scrambles.
Salt makes food taste better. It’s a flavor enhancer. It has all sorts of great benefits. I see it as one of those foods that, when used sparingly, is really wonderful for a diet.
Knowledge at Wharton: How do you think the beef industry and dairy industry need to be changed down the road?
Kimble: To live in cities, we naturally have to outsource and process our foods. The reason that we have these large dairies and concentrated animal-cleaning operations is that we urban people really want to eat a lot of those foods, and we don’t want them to be produced in our spaces, so they are concentrated somewhere else. But I think that there is a way to dismantle those huge concentrations of animals, which are incredibly damaging for the environment, by doing a couple of things. One, particularly in the case of meat, is to eat less meat.
We eat an incredible amount of meat as a nation. How can we produce the meat to supply everyone without those kind of operations? The answer is that we can’t, but we don’t need to be eating meat three times a day, in my opinion.
I was a vegetarian for a long time. The way that I eat meat is I buy it from local producers. In Southern Arizona, there are a lot of cattle that are free range…. I eat it sparingly. Deciding that we want to value our land and our resources means that we have to evaluate how we’re producing those foods.
Knowledge at Wharton: But you also talk about the fact that there is a level of politics in all of this as well.
Kimble: [What] I hope for everyone is that we reclaim our power as consumers to shape the food system. But [on] the other hand is our political system. The reason that we have so much cheap processed corn, sugar and soy beans is because of the Farm Bill. Until we rewrite the Farm Bill and subsidize the healthy foods that we want to be eating, the system is not going to change substantially.
We both have to be involved as consumers and also get involved with our political system in shaping how the U.S. government subsidizes our food production….
Realizing how corporate our food system is might help people get to have different motivations for going to their farmer’s market or joining a community-supported agriculture program. For example, 91 cents of every dollar that we spend on food in this corporate industrial system goes to middlemen; it goes to marketers, to retailers, to distributors.
It doesn’t go to the people who are growing our food. That can be a huge motivation to seek out a local producer to insure that they are getting more than nine cents on every dollar. Because if we don’t support local producers, local food will go away.
“Having to process the meat by myself with my own hands forced me to reckon with being a meat eater in today’s modern society.”
Knowledge at Wharton: You talk a little bit about the effect that these foods have on the planet, and I find that very interesting, especially in this time where we’re really concerned about a variety of different issues in terms of how the earth is affected.
Kimble: One of my original motivators for eating unprocessed was seeing the destruction caused on the earth by our food system because we’ve put [food production] somewhere where we don’t have to see [it]. We don’t have to see the consequences on our water, on our soil. [If we were] aware of that and trying to find producers and companies that are transparent about how they are producing food, I think that there would be less of that. When you see the impact that it has on the environment, it’s harder to continue to maintain blissful ignorance and buy that cheap milk, buy that cheap meat. We had this idea that food should be cheap, but the cost of cheap food is on our environment.
Knowledge at Wharton: What changed for you after doing this for a year?
Kimble: A lot of things changed. I still mostly eat that way. It’s nice to be able to have a chocolate chip cookie every now and then and indulge my sweet tooth, but it made my body feel better. I felt fuller. I felt stronger. It totally changed my relationship with food in terms of seeing it as nourishment and as something that connected me to my community, to my friends rather than this guilt and restriction relationship, which is how it was previously. So that changed. By getting out in my community and trying to figure out how it is that we produce food here in this place, I formed a lot of amazing relationships with other people in my community who are doing the same thing, who are producing food. It became something that impacted every aspect of my life, which I didn’t really expect when I started
Knowledge at Wharton: In terms of all the things that you did during the course of the year, what were one or two things that were the most unique?
Kimble: I mentioned that I was a vegetarian. I was actually raised by two vegetarians. At the end of my year, I took this workshop where I, along with half a dozen other people, helped to slaughter, butcher and process a sheep.
That totally transformed the way that I saw meat. There’s a qualitative difference between the meats that we’re buying at supermarkets that come from anonymous animals who are produced like commodities, and meat that comes from animals that are raised like animals and that we treat with that reverence and respect of eating a living thing and all of the resources that are embedded in that production. Having to process the meat by myself with my own hands forced me to reckon with being a meat eater in today’s modern society. Ironically, it didn’t cause me to be a vegetarian; it just caused me to be much more judicious in the meat that I eat.