Here is the full transcript of author Megan Kimble’s TEDx Talk: Unprocessed: How I gave up processed foods and why it matters @ TEDxTucsonSalon conference. Megan Kimble is the author of Unprocessed and is the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona, a local food magazine.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Unprocessed – how I gave up processed foods (and why it matters) by Megan Kimble at TEDxTucsonSalon
What do you eat? No, what do you really eat? It’s a Wednesday night, by the time you get out of here, it might be eight o’clock. You stop at the store on the way home to see if they have kale. But, is it organic? Is it local? Is it in season? Do you even like kale? I get it. It is overwhelming, all of the choices we’re faced with today. All of the things we’re asked to consider about our food.
A little over two years ago, I set myself a challenge: one year without processed food. The first questions you might ask are: “Why would you do that?” and “What makes a food processed?” And I’ll get to those.
But tonight, I want to focus on that choice of a Wednesday night, when you’re wondering what to eat. I am a food writer, so on some level, I’m paid to think about that choice — I’m the editor of Edible Baja Arizona, a local food magazine based here in Tucson — but I also happen to believe that these choices matter, that they impact the food system, and that we have the power to unprocess the foods we eat.
So what makes a food processed? Of course, all foods are processed. Agriculture is a kind of process, so is cooking, fermenting, dicing, preserving. All foods are processed and often, they are better for it. But increasingly, they are not. Study after study has shown that it is less important what we’re eating than how we’re eating it.
Think about the difference between corn on the cob, versus corn chips versus high fructose corn syrup. Same source, three very different foods because of their level of processing. I spent a lot of time wrangling over the particulars, over the many things that we find on our ingredient labels these days.
But for me, what is processed, comes down to a quote from of all people, Mr. Rogers, which says, “There is a difference between things people make and things that are made.” There is a difference between foods people make with their hands, or could bake, and foods that are made by machines. People can make corn into corn tortillas. People can’t really make high fructose corn syrup without access to a laboratory and an advanced chemistry degree.
So I spent a year thinking about processed food, I wrote a book about it, but tonight I want to focus on just three processes.
The first is the process of how a food gets from its source to your table. How vegetables get from the ground, in Mexico for example, to a grocery store in Arizona.
The second process is what happens to you when you actually eat that food. How your body responds when you drink a glass of apple juice versus eating an apple.
And the third process is a little more complicated, it is the process of how the foods we buy impact the communities we live in. Often this process revolves around money; it is the economy of food. And it is this last one, that of consumer spending that I find the most potential for un-processing.
So how does a food get from its source to your table? This is the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales. It is the largest inland port of entry in the U.S. In the winter, 70% of produce on supermarket shelves comes from Mexico, and most of it comes through here. I like to say that it is the Ellis island for Mexican produce.
So a watermelon. How does a watermelon get from the ground in Hermosillo to a Safeway in Tucson? Well it starts on a farm, a really big farm, 1,000 acres of watermelon. A migrating field crew goes in there and harvests them within a day, they pack them up, put them on a semi truck, 40,000 pounds of vegetables, and send them north to the border. There’s a flurry of paperwork, the border patrol, FDA, USDA, and finally, it arrives here to a 35-degree warehouse in Nogales. There are about 100 of them there, and I spent a few days wandering through these warehouses. And let me tell you, the scale is staggering.
At this particular warehouse, during their high season, every single day, they might move in and out 150,000 melons. I remember standing in this warehouse full of mangoes, and it being inconceivable to me, how this mass of fruit might ever just become one mango in one person’s kitchen. The system is vast. And its survival depends on pesticides, refrigeration, and semi trucks.
Compare that to this. This is what I eat. This is one week share from the Tucson CSA, the community supported agriculture program that I’m a member of. This produce comes from a farm owned by a guy named Frank. Yes, we call him farmer Frank. Farmer Frank sends his two employees out into the field, they harvest enough produce for about 150 shares, wash it, put it on a truck, and send it to Tucson. There’s not a lot of storage, and there are no pesticides.
According to a study by USDA, almost 60% of conventionally grown produce is still contaminated with pesticides, even after it has been washed. If that’s not processed, what is?
So you have these two watermelons: one from Hermosillo, one from near Tucson. What makes one more processed than the other? Well, the first difference is how they are grown. Conventionally versus organically, on a monoculture or on a diversified field.
And the second is the process of how that food gets to you. On average, 91 cents of every dollar we spend on food goes to the middleman. It doesn’t go to the people who grow our food. So, when you buy food that’s gone through this vast system, you are supporting that 91 cents.
On the other hand, when you buy food from a CSA or a farmers market, you are helping to ensure that people who grow your own food get more than 9 cents on every dollar.
So let’s go to the second process. Once that food has gotten to you, what happens to your body when you actually eat it? Sugar is a good example of how the what of a particular food is less important than the how. A lot of people ask me, “Is eating unprocessed hard?” And the answer to that question is sugar. Sugar is in everything. Before I go there, I will say I love sugar. I have such a voracious sweet tooth, that when I was a kid my mom instituted a rule called “One sweet a day”, on which I was allowed one sweet everyday instead of all the sweets, all the days.
But sugar is in everything, apart from that. It is in, for example, Blueberry-flavored flax seeds. The spinach of breakfast confections. High in sugar. This particular brand of mustard is evidently a mix of sugar, honey, and a little high fructose corn syrup thrown in for good measure.
Grape-Nuts, a seemingly sensible solution to breakfast, has four different kinds of sugar hidden on the ingredient label. And that’s what makes sugar so tricky. It comes in so many different forms it’s really had to avoid.
But what’s important to know, is that for your body, sugar is sugar. All sugar molecules, no matter the type, are eventually digested into glucose and fructose. What matters to your body instead is quantity and speed. How much sugar you’re eating and how quickly it arrives through your system.
So think about the difference between eating an apple and drinking a glass of apple juice. In the apple, you’ve really got to work to get that sugar, you have to bite it, chew it, swallow it, it’s all bound up in fiber and cellulose. And so it trickles into your body slower.
Apple juice, on the other hand, is immediate. And that immediacy stresses your body out. But the problem with sugar is that I’m not alone. We all really like it. It pulls our triggers in ways that makes us want to eat more. And food companies know that, that’s why it is in everything.
Unfortunately, there has been a lot of research in recent years that says sugar is simply not good for us. So what do we do? What is the alternative? Well, one alternative is to eat less sugar, the other alternative is to eat fake sugar. Diet desserts. The way that food companies make desserts diet is they process out the sugar and fat and replace them with chemicals so that your body thinks you’re still getting the good stuff, that you’re still getting your dessert.
But anyone who’s ever been on a diet, knows that simply doesn’t work. Eat one brownie made with Splenda and you’re going to want five more before you really feel full.
Compare that to the sweets I ate during my year unprocessed. Home-made chocolate made with raw honey. Cookies made with wholegrain flour, and molasses, and butter. These sweets satisfy my sweet craving, they filled me up, and because they were all bound up in the foods with substance, that sugar trickled into my body slower.
A lot of people ask when I tell them about my year of eating unprocessed food is, “How do you feel? Do you feel differently?” And the easiest answer to that question is simply, “I feel full.” For me, this is no small thing. I have dieted on and off my whole life: I’ve counted calories, I’ve done weight watchers, really, I’ve been through the wringer.
But unprocess is not a diet. When I eat unprocessed, I eat when I’m hungry, and I stop eating when I’m full. During my year, I didn’t gain weight, and I didn’t lose weight, but I ate a lot of delicious food.
If there is one takeaway from sugar, it is that if you’re going to eat something sweet, make it count. Savor it. Make it your one sweet a day. Don’t waste your sugar on mustard.
So let’s move on to that last process. How do the foods we buy impact the communities that we live in? Let’s go back to tonight. Wednesday night, you’re wondering what to eat. Most of us assume if we want to have a healthy, sustainable meal, we need to spend more money, and we need to spend more time.
But when I started my year un-processed, I was a very busy graduate student, earning a graduate student salary of about $18,000 a year. I lived in this tiny little apartment without enough shade to grow a basil plant. So throughout my year, I saved every grocery receipt for every run in and run out purchase, and at the end of the year, I sat down, and I tallied them up. So the grand total, the amount I spent to feed myself for my year unprocessed, was about $4,900.
What that means is the amount I spent to feed myself three, mostly organic, largely local, totally unprocessed meals for a year, was about $4.50 a meal. Now I am aware that there are people for whom $4.50 a meal is simply unaffordable. It is out of their reach. And I’m really interested in that, I dedicated the last chapter of my book to the endeavor of eating unprocessed on the amount of money that food stamps recipients receive which is about $20 a week.
But the fact of the matter is most of us have a few dollars that we could spend differently. This is the hide of a sheep that I spent two days helping to slaughter, butcher, and process using nothing but an 8-inch craftsman knife. Before I go there, I will say I was raised by two vegetarians. I’ve been a vegetarian on and off my whole life, problem always being, I actually kind of liked to eat meat. But I’ve read what we have all read: how destructive industrial meat is to the environment, water, our soils, how animals are treated.
How could I eat meat in a way that seemed responsible? So I spent two days in very close quarters with this sheep. And, here’s the surprise: it didn’t turn me off meat. Instead, it made me so grateful, that I could go to the farmers market and pay to a local rancher who had gone to the same process with the same reverence respect as I had and give me meat in return. I could pay money for mindfully produced meat.
Indeed, if there is one takeaway from my year unprocessed, it is simply that the money you spend matters. I’m not saying that we should all butcher our own meat, and grind our own grains, or grow our own food. What I’m saying is that when you do it yourself, you realize it is so worth the money to pay someone in our community who’s doing it well.
According to a study by Local First Arizona, if everyone in a community the size of Tucson shifted 10% of their spending to a local business, together we would create $140 million in new revenue for the city. Spending money locally has all sorts of multiplier effects. Spend $100 at Tucson’s Food Co-op, and $73 of that will stay in Tucson. Spend $100 at Safeway, and only $43 stays here.
The importance of the money that we’re keeping here is also that we are withholding it from the balance sheets of those multinational corporations who are then, using it, our money, to influence politics, to grow unsustainable food, to waste energy. In short, to process and sell us foods that aren’t good for us.
But apart from all that, the reason for eating unprocessed makes sense to me is that it is simpler. I don’t have to worry about where my food is coming from because I know where it’s coming from. I don’t have to worry what it’s doing to my body, because I feel good. I don’t have to worry about where my money is going because I know who’s getting my money. It’s one rule, and then I don’t have to think about it. I can do what I’ve always wanted to do with food which is simply enjoy it.
After all, the point of food is not to stress us out, it is to bring us together. We have the power to un-process our food system. Of course, we don’t do anything. You do things, and I do things. You go home to make dinner, I go home to make dinner. It’s only when you and I decide to make small changes in our own lives, that big change begins to happen.
So join the CSA, read your ingredients labels, go to the farmers market, ask questions of the people and companies that sell you your food. What do you eat? That’s up to you. But you have the power to make it a little unprocessed.