Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal

Most of the books I review on this site are recent publications. For some reason Pandora’s Lunchbox, published in 2013, caught my eye. Melanie Warner is not a food professional. She is a journalist expressing frustration at the place of processed food in our diet. Some of her prescriptions are old tales that never seem to die. These tales appear in books like Food Rules; Formerly Known as Food; and Animal, Vegetable, Junk. And yet, Warner identifies novel issues about eating patterns and processed food. She raises interesting questions about food that deserve serious consideration by food professionals. My areas of interest overlap hers in five distinct areas. Is there room for agreement by food professionals?

 Additives

 QUESTION #1: Are unpronounceable additives unsafe?

Pandora’s Lunchbox is full of unpronounceable additives. In it we find long lists of ingredient statements that contain unpronounceable chemicals. She details potential risks of many of these “very scary sounding chemicals.” She visits with Dr. Fergus Clydesdale, a former professor of mine. No discussion follows on the literature that supports the safety of these compounds. Like many food journalists before her Warner associates unpronounceability with a safety hazard. Or is it a case of chemophobia?

Q#2: Do we really need texturizing agents in foods?

One perplexing type of additive that we find in the Lunchbox is that of texturizers. These agents are potential masks of unacceptable characteristics in processed food. Without these deceptive chemicals in fabricated food, we would reject it out right. If so, would we spit these imposter foods right out of our mouths?

Q#3: Is GRAS a loophole to allow food companies to determine whether their additives are safe or not?

 GRAS, aka Generally Recognized as Safe, appears to be an escape clause for the food industry. Many additives used for a long time in food products received initial GRAS status. The Food Additives Amendment to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1936 conferred GRAS status on them. To get approval for a new additive in the food supply requires extensive safety testing. FDA requires clear conclusive proof to remove approval of a GRAS additive. There is a way that a scientist in a food company can declare a new ingredient equivalent to an approved one as GRAS. Food scientists see this move as a logical step in processing. Critics of processed foods see it as skirting the regulations. Congress looked into this practice.

 Q#4: Why do we need all these chemical additives in foods?

A final perspective on additives is their necessity. If we would eat more whole foods and less processed foods, wouldn’t we all be much healthier? Or would the food insecure be unable to afford enough food to feed their families? Additives make a processed food more flavorful and enticing than it should be. If we eliminated all additives, the consumers would eat much less processed food. Would that be a good thing? Melanie Warner thinks it would.

Processed products

Q#5: Can packaged breakfast cereals be part of a healthy diet?

large size box of Cheerios
American breakfast food since 1941

Melanie Warner decries our overreliance on processed foods. Whole foods are healthy; processed foods are not. She points to a few studies that compare lab diets of equal calories in rats and humans. In these studies subjects gain more weight from processed food. Her concerns are more with “hyperprocessed” foods than canned or frozen whole foods. The term “ultra-processed” was not in vogue at publication time of the book. She delivers a stern judgement on extruded, sugar-sweetened breakfast cereals. Homemade and manufactured products like pasta made by extrusion get a pass.

Q#6: Are healthy processed foods really healthy?

Warner suggests that processed foods don’t have to be unhealthy. She contends that food companies can’t maintain healthy characteristics and remain profitable. There is so much unhealthy low-hanging fruit out there to enhance the bottom line. She goes in depth into a project conducted at Mars. Product developers were able to preserve beneficial flavanols in their chocolate products. Consumers rejected the idea of healthy chocolate.

 Q#7: Can we trust a product designed to last forever?

One main reason for processing foods is shelf-life extension. Whole foods spoil. Many of them spoil in a short time. Homecooked foods spoil. Many of them spoil within a few days. Rapid spoilage is not the sign of a healthy, nourishing food. The difference is due to the presence of preservatives. The author suspects the value of any food with a long shelf life. The myth of the indestructible Twinkie or slice of plastic cheese persists. Food preservation decreases food waste. Food loss and waste was not a topic covered in Pandora’s Lunchbox.

 Ingredients

Q#8: Are intact ingredients better than added ones?

Whole ingredients are more important to Warner than reductionistic ingredients. Linn Steward and I call them intact and fractionated ingredients. We do not agree with each other on the benefits and detriments of these ingredient types. Both types may serve as nutrient-delivery systems. Food scientists tend to consider a nutrient to be a nutrient. Dietitians and nutritionists favor nutrients present in the form of an intact ingredients. Lunchbox illustrates the principle with an isolated fiber ingredient in biscotti.

Q#9: What happened to the flavor of chicken in the last 50 to 60 years?

Warner’s concerns about chicken flavor lead her to devote an entire chapter to the topic. One of the problems with chicken flavor is that most inexpensive supermarket hens. These birds rush from farm to store. They are “unhappy” chickens who didn’t have time to develop much flavor. “Happy” chickens enjoy the free range with more time to develop better flavor. Food flavorists produce hydrolyzed vegetable protein that mimics happy chicken flavor. Of course, it is not nice to fool Mother Nature.

Q#10: Is soy beneficial or detrimental?

One set of reductionist ingredients in the Lunchbox that is of particular concern is soy. Again, it occupies an entire chapter. Soy emerged when ‘fat’ was a dirty word—an unhealthy component of foods in the diet. Soybean oil occupies a special place as an ingredient in processed food. Hexane extraction of the oil replaced hydraulic expeller pressing. Hexane is a neurotoxin at high doses, but is its presence at low doses in oils a hazard to consumers? Soy reductionist ingredients include lecithin, vitamin E, and phytosterols, and protein concentrate.


Nutrition

Q#11: Are synthetic vitamins equivalent to natural ones?

Warner concludes that they are not the same. She suggests that synthetic vitamins help prevent deficiency diseases. How? Do vitamins have different biological mechanisms when they prevent deficiency diseases and when they promote good health? Studies have compared whole fruits and vegetables in the diet with fortified foods. In these studies natural vitamins outperform synthetic ones. Comparisons in such studies are difficult to interpret. It is hard to control all variables. The author also points out that too much of a vitamin can be as much of a health hazard as too little. The daily values on food labels encourage us to eat enough, without vitamin toxicity.

Q#12: Is it ever OK to eat empty calories?

Nutrition Facts statement for Cheerios
      Empty calories?

Warner and I have a very different view of empty calories. My concept of an empty calorie is one that provides nothing but energy such as a sugar cookie or Easter Peeps. She takes on fortified breakfast cereals, emphasizing the sugar-sweetened ones. It seems like a bait and switch to me. Americans snack too much on sweet and savory foods, whether homemade or manufactured. Breakfast cereals when consumed with milk are a staple for many children and adults. These products don’t constitute empty calories to me, but part of a nutritious breakfast.

Food scientists

Q#13: Why don’t food scientists want to become chefs?

 Pandora’s Lunchbox has little or no concept of what motivates food scientists. The author travels to an IFT (Institute of Food Technologists) annual meeting. She roams the exhibition floor bombarded by exhibitors plying their wares. She eats many of the samples provided, an adventure most veteran food scientists avoid. They know which booths have the good stuff! She then travels to Purdue to meet with food science students. Few of the students she visits with want to become chefs. Most parents don’t want their daughters and sons to study food science. Many of the students want to replace current chemical ingredients with healthier ones. Graduates receive offers of high-paying jobs when they complete their course requirements.

Where do we go from here? Pandora’s Lunchbox frames important issues in the debate between food scientists and dietitians. Melanie Warner travels to manufacturing plants, food shows and laboratories. On the way she learns about the ingredients that make up formulated foods. Although she writes about food processes, it is the ingredients that most concern her. Next week I continue my quest for common ground among food professionals as we view the future of food.

Next week: A culinary nutritionist, a food ingredient marketer, and a professor walk into a bar . . .

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