The 'Unprocessed' Challenge: Another Way to Make You Feel Bad About Your Diet

Categories: Doggy Bag
I bet Mother Teresa ate unprocessed foods.
Our favorite morsel from the blogs.

On New York Times' food blog Friday, Pete Wells wrote about a blogger named Andrew Wilder who has launched a monthlong food challenge called "October: Unprocessed." This one asks participants to commit to eating unprocessed foods for 30 days:
Unprocessed food is any food that could be made by a person with reasonable skill in a home kitchen with readily available, whole-food ingredients. ... If you pick up something with a label (and if it doesn't have a label, it's probably not processed), and find an ingredient you'd never use in your kitchen, it's processed.
So far, Wilder reports on his blog, a few dozen food bloggers have joined him. In publicity terms, the challenge counts as a success: Heck, the New York Freakin Times picked up on the challenge, so it will be echoed in hundreds of blog posts and retweets. I foresee more press for Wilder's cause, and am sure the challenge will produce some good recipes and great food photographs. I don't doubt that the participating bloggers will lose weight and eat better.

And the effect of all their efforts? To make cooking unprocessed foods appear even more elitist and out of range of most people.

Look at the 100-mile diet, another monthlong challenge that brought eating local to the forefront of the food media and introduced the word "locavore" into the common lexicon. Thing is, the monthlong challenge was always meant to be an intellectual exercise. As one of the locavore-challenge founders told me last year when I interviewed her for an essay I wrote in the Seattle Weekly, "I don't think only eating local food is ever going to be a sensible option for most people." Her point was to make a point ― and then work toward large, long-term systems change.

But five years after the first locavore challenge, when you use that word, most people think it involves 100-mile radiuses or radical privation. It doesn't help us find a balance between local and "imported" ingredients in our pantries, or to feel good about less radical choices that we make.

Americans have been linking, for better and worse, health and moral rectitude since Puritan days, and the taint of morality expresses itself most strongly in purity challenges like "Unprocessed: October." Rather than inspire people to eat better, a 30-day-effort makes eating unprocessed food appear to be an all-or-nothing, saint-or-sinner effort. A lot of us read the rhetoric surrounding such a challenge, backlit as it is by the glow of righteousness, and decide that if we don't have the time to commit to that diet, then screw the saints.

I'm sure the intent of "Unprocessed: October" is to inspire people to make more modest changes in their diets. So why not start there?

It's so much easier to get attention for a 30-day, radical effort than it is a campaign advocating for small, incremental changes. Why, you might have to endorse ethical compromises. You might sound half-hearted.

That's not to say these campaigns can't successfully be waged. Meatless Mondays is a great campaign to get people to eat less meat and more vegetables, starting with one meal a week. So is the USDA's Five a Day ― which itself goes against the agency's own recommendations that adults eat nine to twelve servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

This summer, the Ethicurean bloggers introduced a "Cooking Outside the Comfort Zone" challenge, aimed at getting people to buy a vegetable they've never cooked before (preferably at the farmers' market) and figure out how to cook it. The challenge had many of the same objectives as "Unprocessed: October," but it was modest, memorable, and easy to do. Hell, it sounded fun. Who knows where it could lead?

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie. Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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