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.