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Pandora's Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal Hardcover – February 26, 2013
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Q&A with Melanie Warner
Q. What inspired you to want to explore the subject of processed foods?
A. The idea for a book crystallized for me not long after I began writing about the food and beverage industries in the mid-2000s. I went to a trade show called IFT (Institute of Food Technologists), one of the food industry’s largest gatherings. Inside a massive convention center, there were people selling things like micro-particulated whey protein, inner pea fiber and starches that had been modified to mimic fat or dietary fiber. Companies talked about food as an “application,” as if it was a piece of software you put together. It seemed to me that our food had become vastly more technical and complicated than we realized, and we had little idea about what happens to it after it leaves the farm. This was the story I wanted to tell. Because in order to make good food choices, we first need to know what we’re eating.
Q. What should everyone know about processed foods?
A. Processed food represents an entirely new way of eating for us as human beings. Our diets have changed more in the last 100 years than they have in the last 10,000. So much of what we see in the middle aisles at grocery stores and on fast food menu boards simply didn’t exist a century ago.
This is a concern because, while the technology for processing food has advanced by leaps and bounds, our human biology hasn’t. The way our bodies handle food is stuck somewhere in the Stone Age, long before there was sugary boxed cereal, chicken nuggets and frozen dinners. Much of what we eat is now deeply out of synch with our biology.
Q. What surprised you the most in your research?
A. Where vitamins come from (many of them come from China and are derived from starting ingredients like sheep grease) and how prevalent soybean oil is in our diets (10% of total calories) and the health implications of that.
Q. How has your behavior changed since writing the book? Do you eat differently? Do you feed your children differently?
A. Although I generally follow my own advice – a diet with fresh, real foods at its foundation – I do eat processed foods, as do my kids. But the book has made me a little more careful of my choices. When you stare at ingredient lists long enough, the siren call of quick, convenient, indulgent food often goes on mute. I have to say that I am no longer tempted by donuts! I also stopped my occasional purchase of fast food French fries because of what I uncovered about the toxic compounds formed in heated frying oil. And I realized there we certain things I was buying prepackaged that could in fact be made relatively easily at home, like homemade mac and cheese for the kids, made with real cheese instead of the powdered stuff in the box.
“So much fun that you might forget how depressing it all is… There are more Holy Cow! moments here than even someone who thinks he or she knows what’s going on in food production could predict.” (Mark Bittman The New York Times)
“In Pandora’s Lunchbox, Melanie Warner has produced an engaging account of how today’s ‘food processing industrial complex’ replaced real foods with the inventions of food science. Her history of how this happened and who benefits from these inventions should be enough to inspire everyone to get back into the kitchen and start cooking.” (Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and coauthor of Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics)
"Pandora's Lunchbox is a brilliant and fascinating exploration of how our food gets processed, its powerful effects on our health, and what we can do about it. Highly recommended!" (Dean Ornish M.D., author of Eat More, Weigh Less, and The Spectrum: A Scientifically Proven Program to Feel Better, Live Longer, Lose Weight, and Gain Health)
"Melanie Warner is a journalist of keen skill, and in Pandora's Lunchbox she pries the lid off well-packaged secrets about how our so-called food is made. The resulting bounty of insights and revelations is almost overwhelming. This is a book of stunning, at times shocking truths, told in a crisp, compelling narrative. Of profound importance for everyone who eats." (David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, Director of Yale University Prevention Research Center and Director of Integrative Medicine Center at Griffin Hospital)
“Warner pulls back the curtain to reveal the industry secrets of how our most basic staples are being transformed into processed foodstuffs to boost profits. We get an (un)healthy dose of hexane-extraction, gun puffing and roast chicken type flavor, but like the best investigative journalists, she uses the personal stories of food scientists, innovators, and crusaders not to mention her own home experiments, to show why you’ll want to think twice before hitting the drive-thru or reaching for that ‘health bar.’” (Robert Kenner, director of Food, Inc.)
“In the tradition of Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a fascinating and cutting-edge look at the scary truth about what really goes into our food.” (Publishers Weekly)
"A gripping exposé." (Wall Street Journal)
"Fascinating." (The A.V. Club)
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You already know the story -- there is too much salt, sugar, fat in most of the prepared food items in the supermarkets and in restaurants. They are overprocessed and overpackaged. They have little nutrition and a host of ingredients we don't need or don't need in the vast quantities provided. And don't look to the government to inspect the products or determine what's dangerous -- the government has more of an interest in promoting agri-business as it does protecting us from abuses. It's nothing new, it's been this way for over a century.
What could have been a depressing and distressing account, in Warner's hands, turns out to be quite an entertaining story with a lot of new information. For instance, her interview with a specialist in creating aromas and tastes for foods was original and informative. Warner's conversational style makes a horrifying story downright fun to read.
There is a subtle theme running through the book along with the more obvious and alarming trends. Every executive and scientist Warner interviewed admitted that they do not eat the products they sell. For them, it's home cooked food from fresh ingredients or restaurants that specialize in organic food. No Lunchables for their kids.
(Thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy.)
However, the reason I can only give the book 3 out of 5 stars is due to the last chapter's emphasis on women cooking more and no reference at all to men needing to cook more. While Ms. Warner does often mention how "people" need to cook more, all her examples of modern day people doing this for their families are women. Melanie Warner herself makes mention of how she relied more on precooked food for her kids while researching the book without mentioning her husband's potential role in feeding the family during this time at all. She also makes the statement that cooking has declined since women have entered the workforce in greater numbers, making it sound to the reader like the problem lies with women. Although she continues on to mention that women are still doing the lion's share of housework since entering the workforce in greater numbers, she then goes nowhere with the statement. At least some mention of the need to equalize housework (and most specifically cooking, in terms of this topic) would have been very useful here.
What we eat is fundamental to our well beings. Getting away from processed foods and making more home cooked meals is not something that should be seen as more suited to only half of our population. A huge roadblock to getting people to cook more would be lifted if we could just start to try to change this societal attitude. I was disappointed that the last chapter just seemed to reinforce this stereotype.
Maybe the saving grace is the small quanities of these chemicals and ingredients. It's ironic that on its packaging it says "Goodness guaranteed".