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The GOOD Challenge: Give Up Processed Food for a Month

For our second GOOD Challenge, we're going to try giving up processed foods for a month. But what are "processed foods" anyway?

In January, my colleague Cord launched a year of GOOD Challenges with a pledge to give up soap and shampoo for a month. (He made it, and reported no ill-effects, although a weekend in Vegas toward the end of January definitely tested his resolve.) This month—which is the shortest of the year, thank goodness—it's my turn, and I'm giving up industrially processed food.

The idea behind the GOOD Challenges series is that each month in 2011, one or more of us at GOOD will tweak some aspect of our lives, to see whether these individual actions can create positive change—in our own well-being, in our communities, and in the world around us.

At first, I actually thought that giving up industrially produced food might be too easy. After all, I already cook from scratch most nights of the week and bring the leftovers to work for lunch, stock up at the farmers' market and Whole Foods, and—a blessing, this—don't have even have a nostalgic weakness for American candy, since I didn't grow up eating it.

But then I reached for a can of San Marzano tomatoes to make a quick pasta sauce for dried spaghetti last Tuesday. That morning, I had poured Organic Valley milk into my tea (made with Yorkshire Tea bags that I smuggle in from England), and enjoyed a Fage Greek yogurt with some defrosted berries. My lunch was the leftovers of a shrimp and sweet potato curry that I had made the night before—using Thai fish sauce and canned coconut milk. During the dreaded afternoon energy crash, I washed down a few squares of Green & Black's dark chocolate with an iced coffee (cold brewed at home using pre-ground beans). Did any or all of these items qualify as industrially processed? Had I failed on my first day out of the gate?

My tomatoes were an heirloom variety, with protected geographical status—but they were undoubtedly heat-treated using a pressure canner to destroy micro-organisms that cause spoilage. My milk was pasteurized and homogenized, the tea leaves had been withered, rolled, dried, cut, and blended to make my tea bags, and my Greek yogurt was made in a factory that can produce 8 million pots per week. Previously, I had no idea what went into fish sauce, but some quick Googling let me to conclude that the year-long anchovy fermentation required to make my bottleful of condiment had probably been hastened along through a process known as hydrolysis.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Everyone from Mark Bittman to Lance Armstrong advocates eliminating "processed foods" from your diet, and it sounds like common sense. On the other hand, given that "processed" really only means "altered from its natural state," does that mean that I accidentally signed up for a raw food diet?

Limiting the challenge to "industrially processed" foods at least means that I can cook. But it's still hard to figure out in practice what makes the grade. As an example, let's go back to my nonfat Greek yogurt: As I mentioned, it's produced in the tanks and vats of an 8 million pot-per-week factory and stored in a "robotic refrigerated warehouse"—but it only contains pasteurized skimmed milk and two live cultures. Does the sheer volume at which the yogurt is churned out make it industrially processed, even though its ingredients are perfectly natural? Or, in other words, does the problem with industrially processed foods lie in the scale or the additives—or both?

In an attempt to get some clarity, I went back to the original goal of these GOOD challenges: trying new things "in pursuit of better health, better communities, and a better world." On a personal level, the Greek yogurt contains no ingredients that are bad for my health and I am not convinced by the raw milk drinkers' arguments against pasteurization. But at the scale of my community and the environment, buying yogurt in plastic pots that have been shipped to me from upstate New York is probably not the best idea.

I've switched to making oatmeal for breakfast for the past week while I wrestle with these questions. I guess that having to do this much thinking about everything I eat is half the point of undertaking a challenge of this sort. Meanwhile, I'm curious to hear what you think: What do you consider to be an "industrially processed" food?

I'll check back in again later this month to let you know how it's going—and if you're brave enough to try this experiment yourself, let me know. I'd love to hear about your experience.

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