I was listening to NPR a few weeks ago and heard a review of the book Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over The American Meal by Melanie Warner. I recognized her name from her writing in The New York Times so I decided to check out the book for myself.
Pandora’s Lunchbox is similar to documentaries like Food Inc. or Fat, Sick And Nearly Dead that go behind the scenes of commercial farming, except that Ms. Warner investigates the rest of the food available in our grocery aisles . . . the processed food. Instead of telling us yet again about the danger to our health of soda and candy, she focuses on those foods that claim to be healthy. You know, the low-fat frozen meals, breakfast cereals and vitamin-packed snack foods.
Warner paints an unsettling picture about how companies tout simple ingredients, while chemically transforming them so they come in consistent shapes and sizes, have long shelf lives and have all their natural nutrition stripped away. Her points are disturbing: As she points out, because of a combination of genetic modification, commercial farming practices and the abuse the meat sustains to become frozen food, most processed chicken meals require synthetic chicken flavoring. All of these foods are manufactured from component ingredients involving chemistry more than wholesomeness. Flavoring and feel is manufactured for what sells best with the consumer.
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 very fun to read.
When an artificial-flavor designer raves about the “super-fresh” ingredients used at a local restaurant, Warner asks whether she feels like a hypocrite. The response Warner gets from many of these invested professionals is that not everyone can (or wants to) cook and eat produce, and the processed-food industry is working to make easy meals better and healthier. While this is true, it doesn’t mean it’s okay to sell these manufactured foods under the label of “health.”
Warner is sympathetic and understands that bottled vitamins and soy protein are a great boon for people who would otherwise be malnourished, but that food is more than mixing together the right parts. Lab-created fiber and vitamins can be added to anything, but only by depriving the body of the little-understood chemicals they’re often linked to. And even the challenge of digesting heartier foods makes the health claims doubtful. It’s nothing more than companies using cheap food production combined with artificial flavoring and texturing to maximize appeal to consumers. The objective is to addict consumers to the cheapest stuff you can make appealing and watch the profits roll in.
I appreciated that Warner isn’t a zealot urging people to completely avoid processed foods, but to be more thoughtful about how frequently you use them and what your alternatives are. A great example she uses is boxed macaroni and cheese. Some of the most popular brands have dried processed cheese that you have to re-liquefy with either water or milk. Does that really save that much time and effort versus using perhaps Velveeta or some other cheese in a more natural form? No, but her kids like it, it reminds her of her childhood and they don’t eat it all the time so it’s not really having a huge impact on the health of her family.
Warner simply asks her readers to consider what they eat, think about where the majority of their food is coming from and what goes into it. The behind the scenes details in this book are sure to do just that.