By Kimberly Day
It’s no secret that processed foods are bad for you. In fact, virtually every diet plan out there tells you to avoid or at least limit processed foods.
But what is processed food, exactly? And, more importantly why is it so bad for us?
These are the questions that are answered in the incredibly engaging and thoroughly well researched book Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, by Melanie Warner.
Who is Harvey Wiley?
Warner starts her discussion of the processed food industry in the most logical place—the beginning. She takes a fascinating look back at the first food science department in the U.S., at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1918. It’s goal? To preserve fruit.
With food shortages due to World War I, there was a great interest in preserving food. While canning was a common practice, there was still much to learn about the chemistry of processing.
The university’s department was so successful that soon many universities were developing food science departments. Kansas State focused on processing wheat and meat; the University of Wisconsin at Madison looked at dairy and the University of Illinois was concerned with processed soybeans. By 1953, there was a textbook devoted to the subject, entitled Foodstuffs: Their Plasticity, Fluidity and Consistency.
Today, the largest university-based food science department is located at Purdue University. This isn’t surprising when you consider that the university was also home to Harvey Wiley, arguably the country’s first nutrition advocate and food industry critic.
As far back as 1902, Wiley was running experiments to test the effects of food additives on humans. With volunteers that came to be known as the “Poison Squad,” Wiley tested seven chemicals in particular, declaring that all seven were not “fit for repeated human consumption.” Among these? Salicylic acid, potassium nitrate and sodium benzoate, the latter of which is still being used today.
In 1906, he also advocated against a new-fangled substance refined from corn that was branded as “corn syrup.” He went on to argue against the Monsanto Corporation’s creation of saccharin, the use of any foods “colored with aniline dyes,” and the refining of whole grains. And, in 1927, he raised concerns over tobacco and it’s potential to cause cancer.
Perhaps his most endearing suggestion was that if the food industry was going to use additives, then they should tell people what those additives are. His belief was that “customers should be able to know what they are buying.”
Cheese Whiz and Puffed Cereals
Several of the most interesting chapters discuss the first processed cheese by—you guessed it—James Lewis Kraft. In an effort to be able to sell more cheese to customers without running the risk of the cheese going bad, Kraft devised a way to basically break cheddar cheese down, heat it into a gloppy mess that was now sterilized and free of bacteria that caused the cheese to turn moldy, and could be fashioned into a now-recognizable long square that could be cut into slices.
Presto! The birth of “American” cheese.
It wasn’t long before the milk in the cheese was replaced with a “milk-like substance” and the proteins in the milk itself could be separated out with the use of polyethersulfone—a type of plastic.
However, the FDA soon determined that the product had lost its actual “food” ingredients, and in 2003, stated that what was now Kraft Singles could no longer be sold as “food.” That’s why, on their labels, they are referred to as “Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product.” Sadly, no one seems to have noticed.
Much as dairy has been broken down, separated, extracted and altered, many of our grains have gone through a similar process. And it all started with a Battle Creek, Michigan, doctor and surgeon by the name of John Harvey Kellogg, who also happened to be a Seventh Day Adventist and vegetarian.
As a staunch believer that consuming animal products in the morning for breakfast was related digestive upset, he set out to create a low-fat, high-fiber alternative for breakfast—cereal. More importantly, he wanted this alternative to be able to be shipped.
While his first attempts resulted in course chunks made up of whole-wheat flour, oats, and cornmeal (which they called granola), an “accident” in the kitchen lead to the flakes that we more commonly associate with cereal. Soon Kellogg launched a corn-based cereal known simply as “corn flakes.”
The company was a hit and soon John Harvey sold his interests to his brother Will Keith, or W.K. While John Harvey’s cereal was quite nutrition, W.K. soon saw the cost savings to be had and the opportunity to have more and more people consume his product. It wasn’t long before he stripped the grains of their center germ and the outside bran coating. And adding sugar was only a few short years away.
Fast forward to today, where 20 percent of all Americans are downing a bowl of cereal for breakfast. And, as Warner points out, that cereal is a far cry from what John Harvey imagined.
Today, our cereal is extruded, enriched, fortified, gun puffed and often filled with as many chemicals as actual food ingredients. It is in these chapters that Warner’s tireless research and ability to explain the unexplainable really shine. It makes it quite difficult to look at any boxed food in the same way.
My Vitamins Came from Where???
One of the most intriguing chapters discusses the extraction of vitamins and some of the common sources for these nutrients. And—spoiler alert—it is a long way from where you would ever think.
Without giving too much away, here are a few tidbits:
- Genetically modified bacteria
- Sheeps’ wool
- Corn fermentation
And the vast majority of these vitamins are created overseas, with just one vitamin plant located here in the states. In fact, China is one of the largest producers of vitamins used to enrich and/or fortify foods.
Also, most of the vitamins and minerals added to foods are synthetic, not natural. And as Warner does a fantastic job of explaining, these faux vitamins don’t work the same in our bodies as their natural counterparts.
Preservation is Killing Us
The chapter devoted to the use of preservatives is disheartening at best. As Warner walks us through the dangers of the chemicals used and the food industry’s awareness yet seeming lack of concern for health over profits, (not to mention the FDA’s complete ambivalence to the use of food additives), I was left feeling a bit shaken.
Some of the strongest points she made include the following:
- “Food additives help make food taste good, either by adding desirable flavors o making those that might otherwise send us reeling in disgust.”
- “The FDA said that instead of GRAS petitions—a filing process where agency scientists had to look at safety data and make a decision—there were now GRAS notifications, a system by which a company would assess the safety of its own ingredients, often by assembling a panel of exerts. The company would then notify the FDA of its decision.”
- “Someone consuming a Nutri-Grain bar in the morning, a Subway Chipotle Chicken and Cheese sandwich for lunch, and a DiGiornio pepperoni pizza for dinner, for instance, will have ingested a total of 68 different nonfood additives (not including vitamins and minerals) that until recently no human being ate.”
- “A steady dose of quasi-edible food additives is of particular concern for children, whose small and still-developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxins than those of adults.”
- “The GM [genetically modified] classification of enzymes is a lot more subtle, because while the parent bacteria are genetically modified, the enzymes themselves aren’t . Such GM-generated enzymes can’t be used in certified organic products but they’re routinely included in so-called natural ones.”
Why Meat Isn’t Actually Meat
The two chapters that completely blew me away had to do with meat and poultry. With the exception of breaded chicken nuggets or frozen TV dinners, I had no idea that the meats you buy pre-packaged in the grocery store actually qualify as processed.
Warner explains that chicken is enhanced with “chicken flavor,” and deli meats have fillers that are often soy-based. And that’s not even getting into the feed used to “nourish” the animals.
She also gives an extremely detailed discussion what, exactly, is wrong with the soy industry and why soy consumption is not only so rampant, but that we likely don’t even realize we are eating it.
To this point, she talks about a now-defunct USDA rule that limited “vegetable protein product” in school lunch meat to no more than 30 percent. This rule was in effect until 2000!
She goes on to discuss the insane chemicals that are used in the meat and poultry industry, including hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide.
If you weren’t a vegetarian before reading this, you may seriously reconsider your choice—or at the very least, become much more dedicated to getting your meats and poultry directly from the butcher rather than the bin.
In a Nutshell
I started this book with, what I thought, was a good understanding of processed foods, how that was defined and why it was so bad for you. Thanks to Warner tireless research, fantastic ability to weave the topic into more of a story-telling type of style and her painstaking search for the people actually creating these foods, Pandora’s Lunchbox feels like a summer read with a limitless impact on our health, our family’s health and the reality of health and nutrition in our country.