by Kristi Willis • Photography by Steven Meckler
Fresh out of graduate school at the University of Arizona, Megan Kimble was broke, frustrated and looking for ways to make a difference in how she ate. She’d been reading books about industrial meat production and farming and how they impact our environment. She knew she wanted to make changes, but was unclear about which direction to go on such a limited budget. She’d joined a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program but was still hungry for more ways to change. That’s when she stumbled across the October Unprocessed challenge issued by the blog Eating Rules.
The challenge—encouraging people to shun processed food for one month—was already underway when Kimble jumped in to see if she could do it. “I tried it for a few weeks and it brought up so many issues for me of what makes food processed and where you draw the line,” she says. “I decided to do it for a year. I had yo-yo dieted throughout my life and had a weird relationship with food. I wanted to find something different.”
With the start of the new year, Kimble cleaned out the pantry, set her resolve and started her quest. She dove into the challenge with gusto—learning to make things for herself that most would leave to professionals. She started baking her own bread, moved on to making chocolate at home and even made her own salt from Pacific Ocean water—a process that raised eyebrows when she used her parents’ California kitchen as her laboratory.
Post-challenge, Kimble drew on her journalism background to craft the experiences from that year into an insightful new book, “Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food.” Part memoir, part instruction manual, the book guides readers through the different hurdles Kimble faced on her journey; educates through valuable research about the impact of processed food on our bodies and environment; and provides practical advice on how to make changes to one’s diet. While most readers might not sign up for a butchering class, they can still gain wisdom from Kimble’s willingness to do so, as well as from the lessons she learned about respecting food and its origins. “I’m really grateful for sliced bread and the conveniences that enable a busy, modern life,” says Kimble. “I’m not advocating that we go back to this idealized moment of doing all the work ourselves, but learning where my food comes from and what I was consuming was important.”
And even though Kimble’s strict ban on processed food is over, she still pays careful attention to everything she eats. “I’m an obsessive ingredient label reader and avoid refined sugar and additives in most foods,” she says. “I do make an exception now for sweets. I eat a little chocolate every day so I mostly buy chocolate from the store, and I recently went out for ice cream with my sister. It was nice.”
While on your year-long odyssey, was there anything that you missed intensely?
Giving up refined sugar was really hard…all of the things that refined sugar is in like ice cream, brownies and cookies. I figured out how to “unprocess” most of those things—making brownies with honey, and making my own chocolate—but that was hard. And throughout the year, there were things like cheddar Chex Mix and snack foods that I thought about. I used to drink a lot of Diet Coke and soda, and in the middle of summer, I really wanted a Diet Coke, but then I had it after my year and it didn’t taste good to me. It tasted like chemicals. A year was long enough to change how things tasted.
What was your biggest challenge besides the refined sugar?
The social aspect of eating out in the world was a big challenge. Food has such strong social connectors, and I never really solved that problem. It would be someone’s birthday at the office and I would decide that I was going to sing “Happy Birthday,” but I wasn’t going to eat the cake. There are so many ways that food permeates our lives that it required constant vigilance to refrain from those moments, and the process of explaining to people who weren’t necessarily close friends why I wasn’t participating—it was awkward to explain why I have this weird eating pattern.
During the year, was there any food that you had previously disliked but then changed your mind about?
There isn’t any particular food, but I started to have a new appreciation for simpler foods. I became more attuned to flavors like really good cheese or really good bread and learned how to make simpler meals and have them be delicious. Since I wasn’t eating all the crazy stuff that is in processed food, I was also more liberal with things like cream, cheese and butter—the delicious fatty foods that I had tried to eat sparingly—and my meals were so much more rich and satisfying.
Was there any unexpected learning for you?
With every food, I learned something new about how we process it and how it affects us. I struggled with figuring out additives—where they come from and what they do to our bodies. I learned that there are more than 10,000 additives in our food, and the FDA has only regulated half of them. That’s a terrifying statistic. If the FDA can’t keep up with it, how can I as an individual consumer keep up?
Were there any tools that you used to help you decipher the additives?
Yes—the Center for Science in the Public Interest has an app called Chemical Cuisine that is very helpful. Part of the bargain you have to strike is: When is a certain additive okay (because it’s hard to completely remove them 100 percent of the time)? This app is helpful because it ranks each additive based on how it’s used, where it comes from and the studies that show whether it is harmful for our bodies. Understanding where something falls on that spectrum is very useful.
Do you still take on some big projects like making your own salt?
I don’t make my own salt, but I do occasionally make my own chocolate because I like kitchen projects. It’s fun to make bread, pizza dough and pasta. I still can tomatoes every summer, but some of the projects I wanted to know how to do—like making mead—didn’t turn out that good, and there are people who do that better than I could. For someone who wants to start eating less processed food, but maybe doesn’t have the time to dedicate to it like you did, where would you advise them to start? Read the ingredients label on every package of food that you buy. Once you realize what you are eating, it’s almost impossible to not buy different things—it’s that simple act of awareness.
Unprocess Yourself: Sugar
From “Unprocessed” by Megan Kimble. Copyright © 2015 by Megan Kimble. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
If you’re going to eat something sweet, make it count. The fact that sugar is really not good for us will not make me stop eating it—life is too short to live without sweetness. Rather, knowing this makes me much more careful about how and when I let sweetness into my life.
Check savory foods like mustard or marinara sauce to make sure they don’t have added sugars. Don’t buy presweetened foods, like honey-flavored yogurt or maple-cinnamon oatmeal. Instead, buy plain or un-flavored foods and add the sweetness in yourself. You will, I promise, add less than what would have been added for you (and skip a bunch of other artificial ingredients). Marinara sauces and salad dressings often contain added sugars—whole-wheat bread is another common culprit, as is, unbelievably, deli meat. I’ve seen breakfast cereals filled with as many as five kinds of sugar—if you want a little sweetness to start your morning, add it yourself. Food for Life sells unsweetened granola; so do most natural food stores.
For sweet treats, look for foods that have been sweetened with natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, molasses, or dates, all of which come packed with good nutrients and are often used in much smaller quantities. Lärabars are my favorite sweet snack, made with some variation of dates, dried fruit, and nuts. You can make homemade Lärabars with a food processor and the same ingredients, although I love the portability of a prepackaged bar when I find myself hungry in a processed-only place.
When faced with the many varieties of sugar—both granulated and liquid, added and in bulk—remember: Sugar is sugar. There are important differences between types of sugar, but what’s more important than the specifics of each kind is quantity. Less sugar is better sugar.
To make chocolate, you’ll need: cacao powder or paste and cacao butter; a sweetener, like agave or honey; and salt and vanilla extract. Measure two units of cacao powder or paste for every one of cacao butter. Cut the cacao butter into small pieces, which will help it melt evenly. The best way to melt the cacao butter is in a double boiler; if you don’t have one, you can balance a glass or aluminum bowl on top of a saucepot of hot (not boiling) water. The butter will melt pretty quickly; as soon as it becomes liquid, add the powder and whisk until smooth—the mixture should have the consistency of chocolate sauce. Take the bowl off the heat and let the chocolate sauce cool for about half an hour, or until it reaches room temperature. Reheat the water and warm the liquid chocolate while stirring; add a tablespoon or two of honey, a pinch of salt, and a dash of vanilla extract. After a minute or two—while the liquid is still shiny—remove from heat and pour into a mold; leave it in the refrigerator for at least an hour to set.