As an outspoken advocate of organic food and smart food choices, I was attracted to a book entitled Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal.
“A processed food is something that could not be made, with the same ingredients, in a home kitchen.”
“The trouble with processed food is that it’s rarely clear what exactly it is we’re eating.”
− Melanie Warner, “Pandora’s Lunch”
The 2013 book by Melanie Warner, a former food industry reporter for the New York Times, was a great read – well-written and well-researched. Here are some highlights from her informative exposé:
- In the middle of the 19th century, Americans were mostly farmers; They ate food that they had grown themselves, or attained from bartering with neighbors. However, by 1900, half the country lived in cities. The demographic shift spawned massive business opportunities to feed the urban masses. The result has been an “avalanche” of preserved, prefabbed, precooked, frozen, sweetened, salted, chemicalized, technologically manipulated industrial food.
- Today, most of the food items lining supermarket shelves or offered on fast food menus simply didn’t exist a century ago. They represent “the most dramatic nutritional shift in human history,” Melanie Warner asserts.
- About 70 percent of our calories now come from this type of food.
- Since 1909, Americans eat double the amount of added fats, half the fiber, 60 percent more added sugars, more than three times the level of sodium, and “infinitely greater” quantities of substances extracted from corn and soybean.
- Food technology has developed a dazzling array of methods, additives, and modified, chemicalized ingredients to preserve shelf-life, withstand the ordeal of mass production, increase eye and taste appeal (and keep looks and tastes precisely the same over time), and promote profits. While whole food ingredients like fresh fruits and vegetables are desirable, they generally are expensive and contain water that can cause spoilage. “American grocery shoppers and fast-food eaters have become deeply attached to the idea of inexpensive food,” and thus food manufacturers are under a great burden to keep down costs, says Warner.
- Americans today pay 9.8 percent of their disposable income for food, lower than at any other time in U.S. history and lower than the citizens of any other nation. In 1950, the percentage was 20.6 percent.
- An estimated 5,000 substances are added directly and intentionally to food, more them half of them flavorings and “taste modulators.” “Manufactured tastes are one of the most defining ingredients in processed food; they are as prevalent as sugar, salt, fat, wheat, and synthetic vitamins and minerals. They lend cravability to foods that would otherwise be inedible slurries of corn, wheat, or soy,” says Warner.
- In addition to the usual array of sweeteners in the form of sugar, cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and other compounds, food technologists are developing sweet enhancers that are lumped, without identity, “under the catchall ‘artificial flavors.’” Some enhancements supposedly aim to block bitterness and other undesirable flavors.
- Another 3,750 or so “food contact substances” used in packaging and in processing machinery, such as “lubricating and cleaning chemicals,” can possibly seep into processed foods. Occasionally, contamination can cause consumer reactions, as in the 2010 case of a chemical used in wax-lined cereal bags that led to complaints of nausea and diarrhea and a recall of 28 million boxes of popular cereal products. “It’s a small miracle this sort of contamination doesn’t happen more often,” says Warner.
- Less than half of food additives, “have been the subject of any published toxicology studies” and experimental feeding safety tests. The preservative butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) is believed to be carcinogenic and manufacturers have reduced usage, opting instead for butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), a related compound “presumed” to be safer.
- Dozens of sodium compounds are used in processed food such as soups, breads, salad dressings, dips, and fast-food sandwiches. They include sodium nitrate, sodium phosphate, sodium acetate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium caseinate, sodium hexametaphosphate, and sodium benzoate. These additives account for most of the sodium, an essential mineral but potentially harmful in excess, consumed in the diet, and not from the saltshaker (salt is sodium chloride).
- Phosphorus compounds used in processed foods have the potential to create an overconsumption, and can lead to physiological disturbances and imbalances vis-a-vis other important minerals, such as calcium. Phosphorus is already widely present naturally in many foods, such as meats, grains, nuts, and beans. Phosphoric acid in sodas is a major source of unnecessary added phosphorus.
- Artificial food colorings (like yellow, blue, and red dyes) are a processed food staple. Foods for kids are loaded with them, and have been linked for many years in studies to hyperactivity. The European Union requires warning labels that consumption of such foods “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” Says Warner: “Barely any food additives have undergone testing for links to behavioral disorders.”
- Most processed foods require added fat, and the cheapest and most common form (62 percent of added oils) available is highly processed soybean oil. You’ll find it in salad dressings, cookies, crackers, chips, chicken products, frozen dinner, and imitation pizza “cheese,” sauces, buns, and fryers. The use of this, and other polyunsaturated vegetable oils, has introduced a high amount of omega 6 fatty acids into the diet, creating an imbalance with omega 3 fatty acids. There is considerable evidence associating the intake of omega 6 fatty acids with increased inflammation, and risk, among other conditions, of heart disease, some cancers, and depression.
- The soybean has also been exploited for its high protein content (35-40 percent). It’s cheaper than animal protein and is widely used in bars, cereals, veggie burgers and hot dogs. It imitates meat “and forms the backbone of the vegetarian products industry. Anything that’s designed to look like meat, but isn’t, is probably constructed from soy protein,” says Warner. You would never know it but the chicken and beef served in many restaurants is often cheaply enhanced, bulked up, and moisturized (and thus juicier) with soy protein. The rigorous manufacturing gauntlet – heat and chemical processing − involved in making soy protein products, however, removes all of its fiber, vitamins and phytochemical compounds that may have some anti-cancer effects.
- The first widely successful commercialized processed food was American cheese, the result of stick-to-it-ness experimentation by a Chicago horse-and-carriage cheese peddler named James Kraft. In 1916 after experimenting with heating and mixing grated cheddar, he came up with a technique that created cheese able to be “kept indefinitely without spoiling.” The cheese became an instant hit locally, then nationally, and within a couple of years was feeding U.S. soldiers fighting in World War I in France. By 1930, processed cheese accounted for more than 40 percent of all cheese eaten in the U.S. Today, American cheese is still popular and is just one item among food giant Kraft’s product line. After much experimentation with emulsifying salts, preservatives, and acidity regulators, Kraft scientists during the 1990s also figured out how to replace some of the original “natural cheese with a cheaper, more convenient milk-like substance.”
- Half the world’s boxed breakfast cereal – to be sure, a processed food − is eaten by Americans, Brits, and Canadians. The first modern ready-to-eat cereals were created by Michigan physician John Harvey Kellogg (“Corn Flakes”) and by Quaker Oats (“Puffed Rice”). When vitamins first became synthesized in the 1930s, food manufacturers started adding them to their products. In 1938, Kellogg’s “Pep” became one of the first cereals to be thus “fortified.” These cereals and their successors go through elaborate processing that allows them to sit on market and pantry shelves for many months. Many current cereals list sugar as a primary ingredient, but overall there tends to be less per serving than a few decades ago – a probable result of growing consumer awareness.
- Vitamins added to processed food are rarely derived from food. Most are synthetic and half the world’s production comes from China. Most of the vitamin D, for instance, added to breakfast cereals, breads, bars, milk (even organic milk), margarine, and other dairy products is derived from the fatty constituents of Australian sheep wool by a Chinese processing company. The Chinese also manufacture 60 percent of the xanthan gum (a food thickener), monosodium glutamate (AKA MSG – a flavor enhancer), and 40 percent of emulsifiers and stabilizers.
The Bottom Line
I try to avoid processed foods as much as possible because they do not contribute to optimum health and they have no place in a heart-healthy anti-inflammatory diet. However, I clearly recognize the appeal for time-strapped homemakers.
To be sure, processed foods have significantly reduced the time a homemaker – typically a woman, and often a woman with an outside job – spends in the kitchen. In 1927, according to Warner, the average woman worked an “unimaginable” five to six hours a day making food for her family. By the 1950s, the time spent making dinner was an hour-and-a-half, or less, and today – barely thirty minutes. Often, healthy home-cooked meals made with whole foods are replaced with time-saving fast-food and frozen items.
Today, we live in a new tech-food world, and sales are ever rising to prove it; In the U.S., annual business from just frozen foods and beverages alone, totals $70 billion. The consequences of overindulging in this kind of food are also on the rise, and by that I mean the grim statistics for obesity and diabetes. Shouldn’t food manufacturers focus on more nutritious food, you might be wondering? Not really, as Melanie Warner smartly puts it. “They’re doing what they’re good at and what they’re rewarded for, industrially processing foods to make them profitable, and then marketing the hell out of them. Often this requires them to make products that look healthy but really aren’t.”
To be perfectly honest, no food manufacturer really has the responsibility to improve our diet. That’s our responsibility. As consumers, we’re the ones who have to make the right choices.
Melanie Warner’s book reads like a novel as it reveals the fascinating goings-on and developments in the food-technology industry. She describes how you can decrease your reliance on processed food and increase the nutritional quality of what you do eat. For that purpose, she writes not only as an investigative reporter but also as a mother who cooks for her own family.
Pandora’s Lunchbox is an eater’s education. I highly recommend it.
- Warner, Melanie. Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal (Scribner, 2014).
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