Can you live without processed food?

Cakes and donuts Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Cakes and doughnuts are forbidden but not all processed food is a bad thing

The white stuff you sprinkle on your food is back in the headlines. Whether it's salt or sugar, it seems many of us may be consuming too much. So how easy is it to live without processed food for a week? Helen Briggs finds out.


The first day of my new regime involves rifling through kitchen cupboards to see what I'm permitted to eat. The definition of processed food varies, but according to the US Food and Drug Administration it comprises:

  • Any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration or milling.

So out with pasta, oil, tinned tomatoes and many other staples.

Unlimited fruit and vegetables are an easy option, along with the humble baked spud.

But what about protein? I don't eat meat so that means soaking and cooking my own lentils and chickpeas, rather than buying them tinned.


It's a work day, so I have to pack an entire day's supply of rations. I can't rely on my usual soup or salad as it's bound to contain something processed, like stock cubes or mayonnaise.

So, I load up with fruit - banana for breakfast; apple and oranges for snacks.

Then, horror of horror, I'm struck by qualms about coffee - does it count as processed?

Victoria Taylor, senior dietician at the British Heart Foundation, has agreed to help me with my quest, so I ping off a panicky email.

Thankfully, she grants me a concession - I can have coffee as long as I buy the coffee beans and grind them myself.

Another thing to add to my to-do list, then.


Tired this morning after an evening up late soaking chick-peas, boiling lentils and grinding coffee beans.

My children are peering into dirty saucepans: "What's all this burnt gooey stuff, Mummy?"

My rucksack is bulging with pots of things - home-made chick-pea salad, nuts, bananas, bunch of grapes, and yet another variety of home-made salad.

I am starting to crave sugar, and patrol hungrily around the canteen in search of anything non-processed.


A new routine this morning. To analyse what I'm eating, Victoria has asked me to weigh all my food three days a week.

To add to the grinding, soaking and boiling, I now need to put everything on the scales.

On the plus side I think my diet is having some effect - I feel healthy and full of energy.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Birthday cake is tricky on a no-processed food diet
Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Lentils and beans cooked at home are a healthy option


I've discovered that adding herbs to things is a good way to get flavour without using salt, sugar or sauces.

Mint tea has become a speciality - fresh mint in the bottom of a mug, topped up with hot water, and you're good to go.

I am also saving a fortune on ditching take-out coffees (although I have to confess to the occasional illicit non home-ground Americano).


I like to think I'm pretty good at checking food labels. But a cursory glance, before chucking it into the supermarket trolley, is no longer good enough.

I am finding out that sugar or salt can be sneaked in to many things you wouldn't expect.

The unprocessed pistachio nuts, complete with shells, I pick up in the supermarket queue actually have added salt.

And sugar can be hard to spot on food labels, listed as high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, malt syrup, maltose and evaporated cane juice, among other things.


In the UK, cooking food at home is becoming a thing of the past.

In the last decade, money spent on take-aways and eating out has gone up by almost a third.

I spend my Saturday the old-fashioned way - batch-cooking meals that can be eaten over the course of the next few days.


A family birthday so eating out is unavoidable.

The waiter is starting to get impatient with my questions. Is the risotto made with home-made stock? Does it have any added sugar/salt/artificial things?

Eating out is a minefield when you're forbidden from adding anything to your food.

Whether it's a take-away sandwich, a morning cappuccino or a birthday celebration in a restaurant, finding out exactly what is in your food is a nutritional nightmare.

The verdict

The week has been enlightening - and it's definitely something I will do again.

But without a lot of forward planning and preparation, it's impractical for many.

I could have opted for a more varied diet such as grilled fish and steamed vegetables, but without my own personal chef or a job working from home, that was beyond me.

So how did I do? According to Victoria Taylor, not too badly. She says based on a comparison with my "control" week, my salt and saturated fat intake were both reduced by half.

The main reason for me - as a non-meat eater - was giving up bread and cheese, which, while not conventional processed foods - can be relatively high in salt and saturated fat.

"Although Helen wasn't feasting on foods we typically think of as processed, like ready-made meals, pizzas or crisps, her experiment does show how it's often the everyday foods like cheese and bread that make a big difference to the amount of saturated fat and salt we are eating," she says.

"Processed foods aren't always a bad thing but this does highlight the importance of clear food labels.

"Colour coded labels which give at-a-glance information are an easy way to work out if the food you're eating is the healthy choice."

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