As a former New York Times reporter and the mother of two young boys, Melanie Warner felt compelled to scrutinize the strange ingredients she encountered on “prefabbed, precooked, often portable” food package labels and to peer under the hood of the high-tech manufacturing processes that create 70 percent of the foods Americans consume today. Her recent book Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal (Scribner, 2013) was the result. Optimum Wellness spoke with Warner recently at her home office in Boulder, Colorado.
What exactly is “processed” food? Highly processed foods are ones you can’t make in your home kitchen. They have excessive levels of sugar, salt, fat, and refined grains, and they are loaded with synthetic additives or manufacturing aids so that manufacturers don’t have to use as many real ingredients, which tend to be more expensive and harder to work with. Some help with how the product looks. Many are flavorings—some that mask the bad taste of other processed ingredients. And then a lot help in preserving foods. Processing destroys a food’s naturally occurring vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients. Processed foods don’t have these unless they are added back in synthetic forms.
What surprised you most in researching the book? That even the FDA doesn’t know how many additives are going into foods and doesn’t test new food additives; the food companies do the testing, and the regulatory process is voluntary. There’s no central place or website for consumers to learn about the safety of these ingredients.
In the book, you describe methods using hazardous industrial chemicals. It starts to sound like science fiction. How did we get here? It’s been going on for decades, this gradual progression of technology and science into food production. And it has helped make food cheaper by making food production more efficient. In the 1940s, food companies began targeting consumer markets for the convenience foods they sent to the military troops fighting overseas. By the 1950s housewives had fully adopted precooked, pre-prepared foods. Today, most large food companies want to increase sales, cut costs and increase margins. So they have a big incentive to push people to these cheaper foods.
Long, hard-to-pronounce words in the ingredient list are a big red flag, but could we miss some highly processed ingredients because they sound ordinary? Yes. Take soy protein isolate. People think it’s healthy because it has the word protein and because soybeans have a health halo—partly because the FDA allows manufacturers to say that the product can lower risk for heart disease. Whole soybeans and foods made from them like tempeh, miso and edamame actually are healthy—but there’s a lot of disagreement over the health benefits of soy protein isolate. It has been so highly processed, first using the chemical hexane—a neurotoxin left over from the oil refining process—and then further processes in which all of the fiber, vitamins and minerals are lost.
What lost a place on your shelf or in your refrigerator as a result of you writing this book? I stopped buying even the natural kids’ mac and cheese. Not that it’s so horrible. I just thought, “Why am I giving the kids powdered cheese [agglomerated cheese] or liquid cheese when I could make pasta with a simple sauce made with real cheese?