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4 EAT AT LEAST 75% MINIMALLY PROCESSED FOOD

This action focuses on reducing the energy devoted to making processed foods by eating more fresh fruits, vegetables and meats and less pre-made processed food.

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why?

Energy in FoodIn primitive cultures, 5 to 50 food calories were obtained for each calorie of energy invested. Industrialized food systems require 5 to 10 calories to obtain 1 food calorie (‘Energy use in the U.S. Food System, Steinhart, 1974). This is due, in large part, to the energy put into heavily processing foods for longer shelf life, and packaging options.

Processing and packaging account for 23% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States food system annually, compared to only 14% attributed to transport and distribution. The figure below illustrates that in the United States the energy put into the food system provides mainly highly-processed, high calorie foods, with only a small fraction dedicated to grains, fruits and vegetables.

Daily per capita energy input to the US food system (Adapted from Bomfod, 2011).

Oils, sugars, snacks, baked goods (5,500 calories)
Beverages (3,500 calories)
Meat and eggs (4,000 calories)
Dairy (1,500 calories)
Fruit and vegetables (1,900 calories)
Grain (800 calories)

While eating less processed food is a mantra related most prevalently to eating a healthier diet, eating less processed food also has the potential to create significant change in living a more sustainable lifestyle. We are using more energy-intensive technologies for food processing that account for about half of the increase in food-energy according to a report done by the USDA Economic Research Service in March 2010 (see Food summary for further information on this study).

A significant amount of food energy every year is attributed to agricultural machinery and fuel for these machines, transportation of food, food processing, food packaging, ovens, stoves, microwaves, home appliances, and even in manufacturing of the cookware used to make food (USDA).

"Businesses are faced with increasing labor costs, and while energy costs are low it is more economical to put machines to work. As a result, "there has been a shift from human labor to energy-using equipment occurring in all food and food-related commodity groups" (USDA).

    This processing falls into two categories:
  • (1) Energy used to created pre-packaged and processed foods which are purchased in grocery stores.

  • (2) Energy used to process foods with home kitchen appliances.

While using kitchen appliances to process foods more quickly and conveniently does add up to a large percentage of our home energy budgets, the larger of these two categories is energy used to create packaged foods. Thus, this action will focus on reducing the percentage of your diet which is composed of processed foods at different levels; ‘highly processed’, ‘moderately processed,' and ‘minimally processed.' The less processing, the less energy needed for this stage of the food system.


how to do this action:

The goal of this action is to decrease purchases of pre-packaged, processed foods, and replace them with fresh produce and meats in order to reduce the food-related energy dependence.

The first step in this action is to take an inventory of the percentage (in dollars) of processed foods purchased versus fresh, raw ingredients. There are many levels of food processing, making it difficult to define a ‘processed’ food from an ‘unprocessed’ one. In reality, almost all food is technically ‘processed’ in some way before being eaten, but the energy required for that processing varies greatly.

In order to quantify and measure this action, there is a need to define these categories more clearly. Although somewhat subjective, the following are brief, general descriptions of how foods could be categorized for this action using examples of ‘highly processed, ‘moderately processed’, and ‘minimally processed’ foods.

    'Highly Processed'
  • Food which is pre-packaged in boxes, ready to eat, or requiring very little post-purchased processing
  • (Examples: freezer meals, boxed crackers, sodas, boxed cereal, pre-made sauces, candies, chips, canned foods)
  • 'Moderately Processed'
  • Butter must be separated from milk, olives must be pressed or chemically treated to produce olive oil, frozen vegetables are blanched, packaged and combined with preservatives. These are all examples of what could be considered 'moderately processed' foods. These foods are often still considered to be one ingredient, but some processing was necessary to increase shelf life or simply to create the food.
  • 'Minimally Processed'
  • This category has little to no processing. Minimal processing makes some foods more convenient to eat, examples of these foods would be cleaned fish and butchered meat, raw nuts and seeds.

  • Completely unprocessed foods are eaten in their raw, natural state. An example of a completely unprocessed food would be a raw carrot. This group will not have a nutrition label.

With these definitions, you can begin to categorize the ingredients in your typical diet to calculate how much of your current diet consists of variously levels of processed foods, and how to decrease this percentage to be eating 75% (in dollars) minimally processed foods.


what will be measured?

KEY QUESTIONS

QUANTITATIVE QUESTION: How much were you able to reduce processed food intake with the goal of eating 75% minimally processed foods?

QUALITATIVE QUESTION: How does the experience of changing diet to incorporate eating a majority (75%) of unprocessed foods affect satisfaction/happiness, convenience, health, and costs?

BASELINE WEEK TRACKING

QUANTITATIVE
During the baseline tracking week before the project begins, use the corresponding spreadsheet (F4_BASELINE) to keep a log of all food purchases by dollar amount. Categorize each item into one of the three categories defined above: ‘highly processed, ‘moderately processed’ or ‘minimally processed’. Calculate the percentage of your weekly diet which falls into each of these three categories.

QUALITATIVE


Qualitative Scale

Using the above scale as a visual, rate each of the following criteria on the spreadsheet (F4_BASELINE) as it relates to your current cooking and food purchasing patterns:

  • 1. SATISFACTION/HAPPINESS
    (Overall, how much enjoyment or dissatisfaction do you get out of doing and completing this behavior?)

  • 2. CONVENIENCE
    (How easy/difficult and accessible/inaccessible is this behavior for you to do and complete?)

  • 3. HEALTH
    (How healthy/unhealthy and safe/unsafe does this behavior make you feel?)

  • 4. COST
    (How much does this behavior cost? Use positive numbers for being above average and negative numbers for being below average and zero for being average.)

IMPLEMENTATION PHASE TRACKING

QUANTITATIVE
Use the corresponding spreadsheet (F4_QUANTITATIVE) to keep a log of all food purchases by dollar amount. Under each of the three categories defined above (‘highly processed, ‘moderately processed’ or ‘minimally processed') calculate the total (pre tax $ amount) of your weekly diet that corresponds with each category.

QUALITATIVE
Part 1 - Ranking


Qualitative Scale

Using the above scale as a visual, rate each of the following criteria every IMPLEMENTATION day on the spreadsheet (F4_QUALITATIVE). Your answers should not be rated in comparison to your baseline week, but in general as a reflection of how you are feeling.

  • 1. SATISFACTION/HAPPINESS
    (Overall, how much enjoyment or dissatisfaction do you get out of doing and completing this behavior?)

  • 2. CONVENIENCE
    (How easy/difficult and accessible/inaccessible is this behavior for you to do and complete?)

  • 3. HEALTH
    (How healthy/unhealthy and safe/unsafe does this behavior make you feel?)

  • 4. COST
    (How much does this behavior cost? Use positive numbers for being above average and negative numbers for being below average and zero for being average.)

Part 2 - Blogging
Keep a narrative log of your experiences changing this action in your life. How did eating less processed food and more minimally processed food change the way you cooked and ate? What were the struggles of this change? What did you find were the benefits of limiting processed foods in your diet? What suggestions would you give to future participants?


resources

World Watch Institute
This article challenges the idea that eating local should be our focus in regards to the sustainability of foods. The author, Sarah DeWeerdt, suggests that factors such as how foods are transported, practices involved in food production and means of processing may have a larger role.

ACTION SPREADSHEETS

The spreadsheets referred to above can be found in the Excel file at the following link:

F4_Eat at Least 75% Minimally Processed Foods Spreadsheet

If you prefer to enter your responses by hand, printable PDFs of each spreadsheet can be found at the following links (at the end of the project, all data will have to be entered into the Excel spreadsheet):

F4_BASELINE
F4_QUANTITATIVE
F4_QUALITATIVE