Opening Pandora’s Lunchbox

Macaroni & Cheese Crackers: American Junk Food

Photo by greencolander [Michelle Tribe] via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

You know the phrase Pandora’s Box, yes? As the folks at Merriam-Webster summarize, its meaning of “a prolific source of troubles” derives from Greek myth, as in “from the box, sent by the gods to Pandora, which she was forbidden to open and which loosed a swarm of evils upon humankind when she opened it out of curiosity.”

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.

Also check out this piece from PBS News Hour, which lists “Seven Foods You Think Are Healthy But Aren’t, According to Melanie Warner,” including #2, Subway sandwiches:

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.

For the PDF of Subway's full ingredient list, click the photo.

I’ve linked to the PDF of Subway’s full product ingredient list, so click the image if you’re feeling brave.

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