As Yoni Freedhoff describes in a blog post,
Warner reports that her interest was piqued consequent to her tremendously odd processed food collection – a collection she started to satisfy her desire to see how long beyond a processed food’s printed best before date that food would continue to be edible. From 9 month old only slightly brown around the edges guacamole, to 2 year old somewhat shrunken and crystallized processed cheese slices, to cereals older than 2 of my children that still look and taste like new, to chicken “nuggets” that rather than being immortal, liquefied (rather than rotted) within 10 days, Warner set out to figure out why.
Her book explores the history of some of the food industry’s biggest sellers: “Eternal” sliced cheese and the mistake that led to its creation; processed cereal and the story of a man who bragged that he never consummated his 40 year old marriage; discretionary fortification of foods and how and why your milk might contain extracts of sheep wool to return to it some of the vitamins stripped clean by the unbelievably harsh world of processing; the growth of soy and a tale of food flavourists and the debate over omega 3 and 6 ratios; whether or not there is such a thing as a healthy processed food, and much, much more.
Warner attributes her interest in food to her mother Therese who both accidentally ate the 9 month old guacamole (without negative effect), and also instilled in Warner two important messages, “What you put into your body matters, Melanie”, and, “Just because it’s edible doesn’t mean it’s good for you”.
As Carey Polis writes at Huffington Post,
Pandora’s Lunchbox explores the world of processed food, whether it is understanding exactly what American cheese slices are made of, or explaining how soybean oil is showing up in so many different foods. Warner doesn’t expect people to suddenly give up processed foods after reading her book — this isn’t quite “The Jungle” here — and even admits that when she was writing the book, she ate and fed her children more processed food than she typically did. She faced the same problem countless of Americans do: sometimes there simply isn’t time to cook a healthy, well-balanced meal. “I don’t think it is realistic for people in this day and age to cook every night of the week,” Warner told The Huffington Post.
“Everyone has food that they hate to love. Some of that is totally fine,” she explains. “Some” is the key word here though — Warner is far from thrilled with the current state of the food system. But since a massive overhaul of major companies isn’t likely, she suggests some more realistic solutions. “In an ideal world, the processed food industry will be much much smaller,” she says.
The $1 trillion industry isn’t doing everything wrong, though. Minimally-processed foods, such as frozen vegetables, are a step in the right direction, she argues. They can still provide some nutrients and convenience while not offering tons of added chemicals or preservatives.
For more, check out Warner’s conversation with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, which Goodman introduces this way: “As we continue deep inside the $1-trillion-a-year ‘processed-food-industrial complex, we turn to look at how decades of food science have resulted in the cheapest, most abundant, most addictive and most nutritionally inferior food in the world. And the vitamins and protein added back to this processed food? Well, you might be surprised to know where they come from.” The interview is available online in two parts, here and here.
Melanie Warner’s new book draws on that myth for its title, Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal. (I might call Pandora’s Lunchbox the best non-fiction title of the year, if only it didn’t rest on that tired misogynistic trope of woman as bringer of all that is evil. Oh well.) Paired with Michael Moss‘s Salt Sugar Fat, our heads are sure to spin as we consider what modern food science has done to the American diet.
Like Moss’s book, Pandora’s Lunchbox is getting nice reviews. Publishers Weekly says, “Warner takes readers on an investigative journey into the history, current practices, and future trends concerning food processing and additives…. Warner’s thought-provoking study does an excellent job presenting the facts without sensationalizing, and offering common sense solutions to those seeking to make better food choices.” Kirkus Reviews concurs: “What is lost from, or added to, factory-produced food in the quest for uniformity, flavor, cohesiveness, moistness and the ability to withstand temperature extremes? To answer this question, journalist Warner examined Kraft prepared-cheese product, Subway’s sandwich bread, breakfast cereals, soybean oil, chicken tenders and other foods. The author clearly explains the procedures and chemicals used to keep mass-produced food consistent and unspoiled, and she identifies the paradox of the food-processing industry: ‘that nutrition and convenience are sometimes deeply at odds with one another.’ … A well-researched, nonpreachy, worthwhile read.”
The book is also making a bit of a splash in the press; here are a couple snippets to further whet your appetite for Warner’s work (if not the foodstuffs she writes about).
Andy Bellatti offers an informative Q&A with Warner, which includes this gem:
Q. You investigated how soybean oil is made. Can you explain why calling it “natural” is a complete misnomer?
A. It’s not easy getting mass quantities of edible oil from soybeans, which are small, brittle beans containing less than 20 percent oil. First you have to drench them with hexane, a toxic chemical solvent that is known to cause nerve damage in humans. The hexane percolates through the soybeans several times and is then removed from the oil (any residues that remain are small.) After that you have to treat the oil with sodium hydroxide and phosphoric acid, then bleach it with a filter, and deodorize it under heat and an intense vacuum. Then often the oil is hydrogenated or interesterified, allowing it to be more stable for frying or other high-heat conditions. Calling any of this “natural” is a farce.
Subway has done an outstanding job of promoting itself as the “fresh” and healthy alternative to fast food, and to some extent, these accolades are deserved. Much of the chain’s food has fewer calories, fat and sodium than what you get at McDonald’s and the like. But unless you’re getting a sandwich with nothing but veggies, there’s very little about it that’s “fresh.” Even though Subway bakes its bread inside the stores, it’s definitely not Grandma’s homemade loaf going into those ovens.
The dough is produced in one of 10 large, industrial factories around the country, where it’s loaded up with additives like DATEM (short for diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono- and diglycerides), sodium stearoyl lactylate, potassium iodate, ascorbic acid and azodicarbonamide. That last one — azodicarbonamide — is known to break down into a carcinogen when heated and is a chemical used in the production of foamed plastics. When a tanker truck carrying this substance overturned on a Chicago highway several years ago, city fire officials had to issue their highest hazmat alert and evacuate everyone up to a half mile downwind. Mmmmm, fresh!
On the same page, be sure to watch Warner’s conversation with Hari Sreenivasan.
Michael Moss made a lot of waves in the press last week with “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” his cover story in the February 24 edition of The New York Times Magazine, along with his just-released book (from which the NYT piece came) called Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.
I wrote about them when the Times article was released online, but that preceded most of the media coverage. Since this is the kind of book that really can’t be over-promoted, I thought I’d devote another post to it.
For conversations with Moss about his reporting, check out
- Dave Davies’ interview of him on NPR’s Fresh Air (Davies: “… there’s a point at which if you keep adding sugar beyond that, it doesn’t work as well …” Moss: “Yeah, you think about in your own life, you’re making Kool-Aid, and you’re adding sugar to it, and there’s a point where you go yuck, I mean I can’t eat anymore, it’s like too sweet. That applies to sugar. We can talk about fat, where by contrast there’s almost no bliss point for fat; if there is, it would be up the realm of, you know, beyond heavy cream, which in some ways makes fat an even more powerful ingredient for the food companies.”)
- his appearance on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman (Moss: “The book … was a bit of a detective story. I managed to come across a trove of internal documents that enabled me to get insiders to talk. And when they did, what it showed was that salt, sugar, fat are the three pillars, the Holy Grail, if you will, on which the food industry survives. And through their research, they know that when they hit the perfect amounts of each of those ingredients, they’ll send us over the moon, products will fly off the shelves, we’ll eat more, we’ll buy more—and being companies, of course, that they will make more money.”)
- his print interview with Tralee Pearce of The Globe and Mail (Pearce: “Are you a nightmare to shop with?” Moss: “… I have two boys 8 and 13, but actually no, we’ve worked hard to engage them. My wife sort of arbitrarily set a limit of 5 g of sugar per serving of cereal. And they’re into it. They hunt for the fine print.”)
Tom Philpott at Mother Jones also offers up “9 Surprising Facts About Junk Food” based on Moss’s work, including this one: “You know how people will sometimes call food they like a lot “crack”? … Turns out, in the case of sugary foods, it’s more than just a metaphor.”
Lastly, if you haven’t read the magazine piece yet, I highly recommend it—you can find it here.
I never ate beets as a kid—my mom, who was the cook in our house, can’t stand ‘em—but I came to love them as an adult. Those marvelous red (and golden, and striped, and more) root veggies are delicious.
But, there’s a variety of beets that go through extensive processing before we eat them. The sugar beet, as I recently learned from an episode of “How It’s Made,” is a major commodity crop that goes through a complex series of mechanical and biochemical steps to become white sugar and other sweeteners. (It’s from season 9, episode 10 of How It’s Made; if you don’t have access to full episodes on Netflix or elsewhere, you can watch a 2-minute excerpt on beet sugar at the program’s website, on YouTube, or below.) Beet sugar is, in fact, the source of more sugar production in the U.S. than sugarcane.
The USDA blog recently touted the fact that researchers are using sugar beet pulp, a byproduct of producing sugar from the root vegetable, to produce biodegradable containers:
America’s sugar industry piles up 1 million tons annually of the leftover beet pulp, so there’s no shortage of that ingredient for the new product. The PLA [polylactic acid, the biodegradable polymer that's combined with beet pulp] can be made from sugars in corn, sugarcane, switchgrass and other renewable feedstocks. The [USDA Agricultural Research Service] scientists say you can use up to 50 percent sugar beet pulp in the thermoplastic mixture and still get a finished product with properties similar to those of polystyrene and polypropylene, the compounds now used to make food containers.
That’s not all: The scientists can combine the sugar beet pulp with water or glycerol to create a different type of thermoplastic that could find a new life as yogurt cups, cottage cheese tubs, and bags. In that formulation, the recipe could be up to 98 percent sugar beet pulp.
For more on sugar beets, head to this page from Michigan State University, which notes, “Not all sugar beets are processed into sugar…. Beet pulp is used as cattle feed and dog food. Molasses, a byproduct of processing, is used to make citric acid, vinegar, yeast and antibiotics.”
Following their custom of late, The New York Times website is already featuring the cover story from this coming Sunday’s Magazine. Titled “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” Michael Moss’s extended piece is extracted from his forthcoming book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. As both titles suggest, Moss — a Pulitzer-winning reporter — takes us behind the scenes of the industrial food complex to make all-too-clear what we already fear. For example, potato chips, Doritos, and Cheetos (to name but a few) are “addictive” by design. Not only are countless millions of dollars spent on marketing, but the extent to which sensory researchers, food scientists, and myriad other specialists are expertly crafting products that tap into the deepest animal parts of our brains is downright scary.
Moss’s Times piece describes how insights gleaned from studying military rations were applied to snack foods:
The military has long been in a peculiar bind when it comes to food: how to get soldiers to eat more rations when they are in the field. They know that over time, soldiers would gradually find their meals-ready-to-eat so boring that they would toss them away, half-eaten, and not get all the calories they needed. But what was causing this M.R.E.-fatigue was a mystery. “So I started asking soldiers how frequently they would like to eat this or that, trying to figure out which products they would find boring,” [food-industry consultant Howard] Moskowitz said. The answers he got were inconsistent. “They liked flavorful foods like turkey tetrazzini, but only at first; they quickly grew tired of them. On the other hand, mundane foods like white bread would never get them too excited, but they could eat lots and lots of it without feeling they’d had enough.” This contradiction is known as “sensory-specific satiety.” In lay terms, it is the tendency for big, distinct flavors to overwhelm the brain, which responds by depressing your desire to have more. Sensory-specific satiety also became a guiding principle for the processed-food industry. The biggest hits — be they Coca-Cola or Doritos — owe their success to complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating.
Think “healthier” versions of these processed foods are better for us? Think again. As Moss writes,
The Frito-Lay executives also spoke of the company’s ongoing pursuit of a “designer sodium,” which they hoped, in the near future, would take their sodium loads down by 40 percent. No need to worry about lost sales there, the company’s C.E.O., Al Carey, assured their investors. [Health-conscious baby] boomers would see less salt as the green light to snack like never before.
There’s a paradox at work here. On the one hand, reduction of sodium in snack foods is commendable. On the other, these changes may well result in consumers eating more. “The big thing that will happen here is removing the barriers for boomers and giving them permission to snack,” Carey said. The prospects for lower-salt snacks were so amazing, he added, that the company had set its sights on using the designer salt to conquer the toughest market of all for snacks: schools. He cited, for example, the school-food initiative championed by Bill Clinton and the American Heart Association, which is seeking to improve the nutrition of school food by limiting its load of salt, sugar and fat. “Imagine this,” Carey said. “A potato chip that tastes great and qualifies for the Clinton-A.H.A. alliance for schools . . . . We think we have ways to do all of this on a potato chip, and imagine getting that product into schools, where children can have this product and grow up with it and feel good about eating it.”
I highly recommend the full piece, which you can find here. Based on the NYT excerpt, I’m really looking forward to the book. It comes out next Tuesday, February 26, and is already garnering high praise. Publishers Weekly, for example, says “Moss’s vivid reportage remains alive to the pleasures of junk [foods] … while shrewdly analyzing the manipulative profiteering behind them. The result is a mouth-watering, gut-wrenching look at the food we hate to love.”
For one more preview, check out this piece at Amazon. The folks at Random House, the publisher of Salt Sugar Fat, have put together a compelling video of Moss scrutinizing America’s enormous (and sometimes unwitting) appetite for cheese.
In a piece for NPR’s food blog, The Salt, Sarah Zielinski examines an old European practice of herding cows into the Alps for summer grazing. As she describes,
in Italy, at least, the practice may be dying out. “Young people don’t want to stay in the mountain because there are poor opportunities for work,” so they often move to the city, says food chemist Giovanna Contarini….
Contarini and her colleagues have been working to save these mountain dairy products. And fans of the cheeses say there’s more than just nostalgia involved. It’s not easy to define the flavor, Contarini says, but aficionados insist the cheeses do taste better.
There’s also evidence that mountain cheese might even be a little healthier, containing, for example, more omega-3 fatty acids than cheese made from the milk of cattle raised on the plains….
“In the mountain areas, the cows are free to pasture,” she says. They mostly eat a mix of fresh grasses and other vegetation. Cattle raised at lower elevations in Italy, in contrast, are kept in farms and eat a prepared feed that contains dried grasses and some fat and vitamins. “Consequently, the rumen digestion is different,” she says.
The rumen is the first chamber in a cow’s stomach, and it’s full of microbes. What a cow eats helps determine what microbes rumble in its rumen, and those differences play out in the chemical composition of its milk. “So some constituents of milk, particularly the fat and the lipid soluble compounds, are different,” Contarini says.
For the full piece, which includes a number of links, head here.
On the heels of my post featuring a Red Bull-sponsored video (of cranberry harvesting—and wakeskating—on a northern-Wisconsin farm), I thought I’d share this recent story from Barry Meier of The New York Times. Meier reviews the evidence supporting the health and performance claims made by makers of these food-like products and finds it to be sorely lacking:
Energy drinks are the fastest-growing part of the beverage industry, with sales in the United States reaching more than $10 billion in 2012 — more than Americans spent on iced tea or sports beverages like Gatorade.
Their rising popularity represents a generational shift in what people drink, and reflects a successful campaign to convince consumers, particularly teenagers, that the drinks provide a mental and physical edge.
The drinks are now under scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration after reports of deaths and serious injuries that may be linked to their high caffeine levels. But however that review ends, one thing is clear, interviews with researchers and a review of scientific studies show: the energy drink industry is based on a brew of ingredients that, apart from caffeine, have little, if any benefit for consumers.
The full story is worth a read, so check it out here.
Slate recently ran an essay from Lauren Kirchner that looks at contemporary retailers of dehydrated and freeze-dried foods. With sales strategies that include Amway-like multi-level marketing, the industry subtly (and sometimes overtly) taps into the long-standing American tradition of survivalist paranoia.
Self-sufficiency without government services is not just a point of pride for many libertarian-minded citizens (and the basis of a ubiquitous political slogan). But whether or not they’re Ron Paul supporters, Americans have never had so many motivations to stockpile food. Stock market crashes, job losses, extreme weather, and the lingering trauma of terrorist attacks all do a number on our national psyche. So-called once-in-a-lifetime storms lately feel like regular, yearly events….
Thankfully, reality rarely bears our fears out. In 2010, Glenn Beck quoted “inflation experts” on his Fox News program in predicting that food prices would soon rise “700 to 1,000 percent.” He brandished a loaf of wheat bread that he calculated would cost $23, and a 2-pound box of sugar that would cost $62, as early as 2011…. Survivalism’s new, softer sell acknowledges all of these fears—it trades on them—but with savvy and subtlety….
Whatever the motivation for consumers to stock up, there’s no question that survivalism is entering the mainstream. Many of the products I’ve mentioned are available through major retailers: Wal-Mart sells food storage kits from Auguson Farms. I first learned about Shelf Reliance from a promotional email from CostCo offering $300 off the usual $1,999.99 price for “THRIVE Essentials Grains and Proteins Kit,” which included 15,698 servings of food in 36 buckets. Hardly an impulse buy, but a bargain at about 11 cents per serving.
That particular kit, while massive, only includes the most basic staples: wheat, rice, oats, beans, instant milk, etc. It barely scratches the surface of the Shelf Reliance line of products. The website offers vegetarian and gluten-free options, freeze-dried whole strawberries and grapes, and bacon and chicken and beef. With ingredients like butter powder, egg powder, and spices and seasoning, you could make just about anything by just adding water and heat. You could live on this food in your everyday life, even in the absence of a new world order. But would you want to?
I decided to order some of this stuff to taste it for myself.
The full story makes for an interesting read, so check it out here.
Having just finished reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes mystery, in which I was surprised to find Mormonism figures prominently (if quite unflatteringly), my encounter with this recent article at Slate was pretty well timed. In it, NYU doctoral student Christy Spackman does a nice job of placing in historical and cultural context the modern association of Mormons with Jell-O. It’s a not a stereotype I’d heard before, but her unpacking of the trope makes for interesting reading.
Jell-O, it turns out, wasn’t particularly Mormon sixty years ago:
Post-World War II America saw young mothers uprooted from the supportive community structures that had facilitated child-rearing for earlier generations. Eager marketing executives stepped in, touting processed items like Jell-O and its culinary cousins (think cake mixes and canned and frozen foods) as the perfect solution to any young mother’s problems. Like their counterparts throughout the United States, women in Utah embraced many of these new foods.
Things changed decades later:
Between the 1960s and the 1980s, Jell-O experienced slipping sales as American consumers abandoned the traditional meal structure of the early and mid-20th century…. [A] 1986 market survey found that mothers with young children rarely purchased Jell-O and suggested that General Foods could promote gelatin-based desserts by linking family life and home-produced desserts….
As a state with one of the highest birth rates in the nation, Utah is and was an ideal market for foods aimed at families. With their family-friendly playfulness and ease of preparation, [Jell-O] Jigglers were a hit with Utah children. More small mouths meant more boxes of Jell-O sold.
The full piece offers plenty more details and analysis, as well as some great links, so check it out here.
I’m mostly a fan of NPR’s food blog, The Salt, but a recent post left me sorely disappointed. Allison Aubrey reports on a new USDA study, which concluded that the currently listed caloric content of almonds is too high after determining that some of the fat in the nuts isn’t absorbed by our bodies. Aubrey notes:
Needless to say, the Almond Board of California is pretty excited about the calorie study. It has not directly petitioned the federal government to adjust the official USDA calorie database, but the group is talking informally with federal officials, Almond Board’s Chief Scientific Officer Karen Lapsley tells The Salt.
“If we can improve the information that’s on a food label, I think everybody is better off,” Lapsley says.
What Aubrey fails to point out is that the study’s funding came from two sources, as the original scientific report acknowledges in its author note: “Supported by the USDA and the Almond Board of California.”
Imagine that! A trade group is promoting the results of a study that casts its industry in a more favorable light, and coincidentally the study was funded by the same trade organization. Why worry, though? It’s not like food marketers have overreached ever before in promoting their products, right? Right!?
To be clear, I’m not questioning these particular scientific results (though one study isn’t necessarily the end-all and be-all), but instead I fault Aubrey for the lack of thoroughness in her reporting. Scientists disclose their funding sources so that readers can make their own judgments about how big a grain of salt to take with the findings; I expert NPR to help its readers and listeners do the same.