Oh my. I finished Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal by Melanie Warner. The last several years have brought many books about food. Michael Pollan’s Ominovore’s Dilemma seems to be the spark that lit the fire. That book prompted Bookman and I to cut everything that had high fructose corn syrup out of our diet. Then there was Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. I read it even though I don’t eat fast food; McDonald’s and company are not exactly vegan friendly places. So that book was like watching a horror movie during which I congratulated myself frequently for not being the stupid one who doesn’t turn on the lights and ends up getting gruesomely murdered. There have been other books but I got burned out and overwhelmed because they all started to sound the same.
Now we have Pandora’s Lunchbox that does and does not cover some of the same ground as other books. Warner’s focus is on processed food. She defines processed food as “something that could not be made, with the same ingredients, in a home kitchen.” The food that turns out to be processed is surprising and scary and what happens in the processing is even scarier. While reading I sometimes had to pause and wonder how some of this stuff could even be considered food anymore.
It turns out that about 70 percent of calories in the American diet comes from processed food. Mass-scale food processing requires the resulting food all look the same and taste the same every time and, in addition, it has to be able to sit on a shelf for a long time without spoiling. To make this happen, real food is pretty much destroyed and rebuilt with synthetic chemicals, compounds and vitamins. There are at least five thousand food additives being used, another one thousand “ghost” additives, and no one has even tried to figure out what substances get added unintentionally through processing (machine lubricants and cleaners) and through the packaging materials.
A common food additive, sodium benzoate, is a preservative made from petrochemicals and commonly also found in paint thinner. As long ago as 1911, a scientist named Harvey Wiley tried to get sodium benzoate banned from food. Test after test on human volunteers showed that it was potentially poisonous, causing nausea, headaches and vomiting. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture food scientists took a vote and decided there was nothing wrong with it in small quantities. Today you can find it in condiments, salad dressings, sauces, frozen foods, fast food meals and soda.
The thing is, companies put these chemicals in food without any sort of regulation. They are supposed to submit requests to use new substances to the FDA but most of the time they don’t. And the FDA is so underfunded they don’t have the resources to do anything about it. So it is a matter of the food companies saying things are safe until proven otherwise. And even if these additives are safe in small amounts, the “safety” of them is only ever calculated individually. In other words, nobody takes into account that sodium benzoate is in your chicken nuggets, your dipping sauce and your soda. It adds up fast when these things are everywhere.
Two of the most interesting chapters in this book were on cereal and vitamins. Breakfast cereal from the grocery shelf is eaten by one-fifth of American adults and one-third of children on any given day. There is nothing natural about even the organic cereal. It has all been processed and almost all of the natural vitamins and minerals have been destroyed in that processing. The nutrition label on the side of the box that lists the fiber and all those important vitamins and minerals, that makes you think it comes from the healthy oats or purple pebbles that pass for blueberries is pretty much a lie. All the nutrients in the cereal are synthetic. Not only that, cereal can sit on the shelf at the store for as long as nine months. Vitamins degrade over time and so, in order for the cereal to have, say, thirty percent of you recommended daily allowance of vitamin C by the time you eat it, seventy-five percent of RDA is added in. Even so, tests have been done on forty-four popular name brand cereals and half of them were found to be nutritionally deficient with the other half coming in at adequate.
And multivitamins? All synthetic chemicals not even derived from real food most of the time. Many vitamins are manufactured in Chinese factories and many of those factories are environmental polluters. The big push for everyone to increase omega-3s in their diet, don’t get me started. If you believe in conspiracy theories, spend some time reading about the processed food industry.
Bookman and I have been slowly weaning ourselves from processed food over the years. We’ve been doing a pretty good job of it for the most part. About two months ago we stopped buying boxed cereal and started making our own. It has turned out to be really easy. Bookman has posted his recipe for anyone interested. Our homemade cereal tastes so much better than store-bought. There are no additives, no preservatives, we put real fruit in it and the sugar content is minimal. And it is more filling. In spite of this I have sometimes thought about “splurging” on a box of organic Cascadian Farms cereal. But after reading Pandora’s Lunchbox, no way! Warner has confirmed we made the right choice.
The world of processed food is a horrifying place. What Warner writes about may or may not be surprising depending on how food aware you are. The book is well written, well organized, and moves at a good pace. I recommend it if you want to know more about processed food. Will the book change my eating habits? I’ve already been changing them and will continue to do so. For me, it serves as yet further confirmation that our decision to move away from processed food was the right one. As David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center says, “The active ingredient in broccoli is broccoli.”