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GOOD Challenge Update: Apparently I Can't Give Up Processed Foods

I tried to not eat industrially processed food for a month. I failed. Should I blame poor planning, kakonomics, or faux-nostalgic Culinary Luddites?

Way back in the early days of February, I made a pledge: to give up industrially processed food for a month. The idea behind my pledge, and my colleague Cord's earlier renunciation of soap, was to see whether these individual lifestyle tweaks can create positive change—in our own well-being, in our communities, and in the world around us.

I've been delaying reporting back on how my month-long experiment fared, and that is because I failed. I just couldn't do it.

The first problem I ran into was simple lack of planning. GOOD's offices are not located within walking distance of a grocery store or a salad bar, and on days where I failed to pack a lunch and a GOOD Lunch salad or soup wasn't on offer, I ended up going to the gas station, the sandwich shop, or a taco stand. I'm pretty positive that the sour cream and wheat tortilla in my burrito and the sliced cheese in my sub qualify as industrially processed (although obviously they are not labeled as such). And I know for a fact that a General Mills Oats 'N Honey bar does.

Oddly enough, I have done a lot better at bringing a non-industrially processed packed lunch into work since the challenge ended. For the past couple of days, for example, I've been tucking into an oversized salad of spinach, roasted asparagus, roasted sweet potatoes, cherry tomatoes, homemade spicy walnuts, and homemade dressing. I pre-roasted and pre-washed all the ingredients on Sunday evening, making it almost impossible for me to fail to eat a healthy lunch. Why didn't that happen at all in February?

I found my answer in an article on "kakonomics," or the study of why life sucks so much. (It really exists: You can read all about it here.) Writing in The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman explores the allure of self-defeating behaviors, and explains that:

We break diets, or procrastinate, partly for the feeling of autonomy we derive from resisting rules, even if we wrote the rules ourselves.


By putting industrially processed food off-limits, I may have made it much more attractive than it usually is. Looking back, it does seem that I suddenly wanted to eat things I don't even particularly like (Nature Valley bars taste like sweetened drywall, after all).

But so far, so much like your typical women's magazine article—"Why Diets Fail," "How To Squeeze Healthy Habits Into Your Busy Life," or their clones. The most interesting problem that I ran into during my failed attempt to cut out industrially processed foods was the one I wrote about in my initial post: How exactly do you define "industrially processed"?

A lot of you left interesting (and supportive) comments in response to that question—thank you. Leslie's rule of thumb is "if you can't pronounce all of the ingredients on the first try, it's too industrial," while others advocated avoiding packaged foods: "If it comes with painted cardboard or hard plastic, it's processed," said "Your Name Here." These rules didn't satisfy me though—I know how to pronounce all kinds of crazy ingredients (years of talking about food non-stop) and you can buy total rubbish in the bulk aisle too (hello, yogurt-covered pretzels!).

Commenter Art Drauglis empathized with my concern about whether everything has to be homemade to not be industrial: "You could easily drive yourself nuts with this. The intent is good, but it sounds like "industrially processed" is just too vague. All grains, including the oats in your oatmeal, are harvested, threshed, dried, and milled by big machines; would that make them "industrially processed" and therefore off-limits?" And "Guest" told me that I just had to decide the cut-off point myself, adding hopefully that "Maybe if it [pasteurized dairy] is made locally and not in a big factory, it would be non-processed."

But cut-off point aside, it's not even clear that non-processed foods are better—for me or the world. Rachel Laudan, a historian who writes eloquently and often against the faux-nostalgia of Culinary Luddism, makes the valuable point that processed foods are often easier to digest and, in many cases, have enabled women to enter the workforce:

If we unthinkingly assume that good food maps neatly onto old or slow or homemade food, we miss the fact that lots of industrial foodstuffs are better. Certainly no one with a grindstone will ever produce chocolate as suave as that produced by conching in a machine for seventy-two hours. […]

Were we able to turn back the clock, as they urge, most of us would be toiling all day in the fields or the kitchen; many of us would be starving. Nostalgia is not what we need. What we need is an ethos that comes to terms with contemporary, industrialized food, not one that dismisses, an ethos that opens choices for everyone, not one that closes them for many so that a few may enjoy their labor, and an ethos that does not prejudge, but decides case by case when natural is preferable to processed, fresh to preserved, old to new, slow to fast, artisanal to industrial.


At the end of the day, while I failed at my challenge, I don't regret trying it. I had to think about how everything I ate was made, every single day for a month, which was exhausting but thought-provoking. Commenter Nicole put her finger on it: "I have tried your experiment before. And enjoyed the conversations when the line became fuzzy."

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