What exactly is ‘processed food’? Initially I took it to mean junk food: sweets, cakes, meat slices, party food, takeaways and ready meals. But on further investigation, I discovered that any food which has been altered from its natural state counts as being processed. That includes milk, and obviously all dairy products made from milk, plus bread (even the healthier types), canned vegetables, dried fruit, and basically everything on the supermarket shelves.
So was this to be a grow-it-yourself vegan diet? I’ve tried that before, and it made me utterly miserable. Time to consult award-winning dietitian Azmina Govindji (pictured left) who, I hoped, would suggest a more lenient processed food diet for me to follow. “Loosely speaking, processed food is almost everything!” she told me. “I mean, it’s not as though the milk we drink comes directly from the cow.”
“But in terms of health and nutrition, when we say ‘processed foods’ we mean things like cakes and biscuits, takeaways, ready meals… things that are high in salt, sugar and trans fats. I wouldn’t suggest avoiding wholemeal flour, and therefore wholemeal bread, even though it's been processed, and things like frozen fish and canned vegetables are all perfectly safe and positively good for you. After all, processes like pasteurisation are there for health and hygiene purposes – and I wouldn’t recommend raw milk to anyone.”
Following Azmina’s advice, I decided to set these boundaries for my challenge: food that has had anything added, or taken away, for flavour/storage purposes is not allowed. But if it has been treated for health, hygiene, or shape-shifting purposes (for example, grinding grain to make flour), then that’s just fine.
Porridge – the type where the oats are only steamed and rolled, not cut. It’s never been my breakfast of choice (I prefer the grab-and-go culture of picking up a pastry on the way to work) and at first I found it tedious, especially when the darn bowl overflows and you have to mop up the microwave. I avoided sugar (which is usually refined) and had honey with it instead – the only natural food in the world which never goes off. Seeing as it was such a cold week, my morning porridge was quite a tonic, and it kept me fuller for far longer than a Pret pain au raisin would have done.
By Wednesday I really missed toast. But I’ve always had issues with supermarket loaves (just look at the lengthy ingredients list), and there isn’t a decent bakery near me, so I wheeled out my breadmaker instead. This is the model I've got, and it makes the most fantastic wholemeal loaf. I added pumpkin seeds to mine (there's a little seed dispenser tray which drops them into the kneading dough automatically), and it was made from nearly 100% stoneground wholemeal flour, plus the usual bread basics such as malt extract and raw cane sugar (see picture, bottom left). Homemade bread, even if it is done in a breadmaker, tastes like a different product to that which comes wrapped in cellophane and, loaf for loaf, it costs at least half the price.
I also made some rye bread and even a banana loaf – although strictly speaking, the latter wasn't allowed, seeing as it was made primarily from white flour, which has had the bran and germ layers of the whole wheatberry removed to make it last longer. But my family devoured most of it before I could get a taste anyway.
Lunch was tricky. I’d usually hit Whitecross Street Market and fill up on falafel wraps or savoury crepes, but not one stall holder could promise me that their food was free from processed ingredients. Understandable, really… even a little pinch of white sugar has to go through ‘affination’, carbonation, ion-exchange, boiling, cooling, seeding with sugar crystals, centrifugal spinning, and drying to get to the state we know and love.
The only way to guarantee a processed-free lunch was to make it myself. It was salad every day – leaves, tomatoes, nuts (cracked from their shells), egg, good-quality cheese, roasted vegetables – and even then a couple of colleagues queried my eating of cheese. It doesn’t exist naturally like milk does, so did I cheat by eating it?
I was learning that it’s an expensive business avoiding processed foods. Fruit and veg is dearer than junk food, and I ate much more of it than I usually would, simply to fill the gap left by not snacking on things like malt loaf and other processed favourites. Had I not followed these cheap ways to your five a daytips, I’d have been nearly £10 down in the space of five days.
My plans for butternut squash risotto were scuppered when I remembered that, strictly speaking, only wild rice (pictured left) was allowed (white rice is hulled, shelled, milled, polished and sometimes coated in glucose to increase luster), and I certainly couldn’t use wine in my cooking. So the week's dinners included roasted vegetables stuffed with ancient grains like spelt, a proper butcher’s steak with greens and homemade chips (was I wrong to allow cooking oil?), and omelette with salad.
It was actually quite easy to create free-from-processed-ingredients dishes, but it did mean spending longer over the stove, what with quick-fix packets such as flavoured couscous and tinned tomatoes (which come with added citric acid) out of the question. I did allow salt, but only the unrefined, straight-from-the-sea kind – literally salt water, which is then dried out by the sun.
Boy did I miss my little bottle of Friday night Prosecco, and puddings too. I rarely have the time to bake cakes during the week, and so would usually treat myself to a Waitrose tart every now and then… but I was startled when I checked, for the first time, the ingredients on the back of my favourite French pear slice – 41 in total, when you only need about 10 to make your own.
Of all the food challenges I’ve struggled through for lovefood, this was certainly the easiest. As long as you’re willing to make your own packed lunch, devote more time to midweek cooking, and increase your spending on food, then a processed-free diet is pretty straightforward. But of course, eating out is near-impossible – I tried to dine at a restaurant, but the head chef, like the food market stallholders, couldn’t guarantee a processed-free meal at her restaurant.
And I did miss my processed staples, like malt loaf, Marmite, those quick and easy couscous packets, and posh supermarket tarts.
Dietitian Azmina said that, had I stuck to the diet for the longer term, I’d have noticed some huge changes: "Your energy levels would probably increase, the B vitamins from whole grains would help with your nervous energy, and there’d likely be an improvement in the appearance of your skin and hair. Plus your digestion would definitely improve mainly because of all the fibre, and you'd be having more nutrient-dense foods."
But what about if you do it just for a week? "Well, I’d certainly expect you to lose weight [I did – about 3 pounds], and perhaps you’d feel better in yourself. We’ve found that those people who make a change in their diet start to make healthier lifestyle choices soon after, simply because they're more conscious of their actions. The mind is a powerful thing!"