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

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

If a piece of individually wrapped cheese can retain its shape, color, and texture for years, what does it say about the food we eat and feed to our children?Former New York Times business reporter and mother Melanie Warner decided to explore that question when she observed the phenomenon of the indestructible cheese. She began an investigative journey that took her...

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Title:Pandora's Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal
Author:Melanie Warner
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Edition Language:English

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

  • Zach

    If Michael Pollan's

    answers "How should we eat?"

    answers "Why should we eat natural foods?" Spurred by

    in which the author let processed food sit and recorded the unsettling lack of decay, this book tracks the historical precedent and health consequences for preservatives, additives, and other processing methods used in mass-produced food sold in America. I think it's fantastically accessible for a lay audience without dumbing down the research or galloping off

    If Michael Pollan's

    answers "How should we eat?"

    answers "Why should we eat natural foods?" Spurred by

    in which the author let processed food sit and recorded the unsettling lack of decay, this book tracks the historical precedent and health consequences for preservatives, additives, and other processing methods used in mass-produced food sold in America. I think it's fantastically accessible for a lay audience without dumbing down the research or galloping off to histrionic conclusions.

    I think it's an interesting moral dilemma because we have an incredibly safe food system that presents cheap calories for consumption. Yeah, food should be more expensive and local, but try telling that to someone making minimum wage. At least they're not starving.

    While our food is remarkably immune to spoilage, is it moral or responsible to pump meals with laboratory-created salts, dyes, and starches? There's a dizzyingly complex list of ingredients that go into foods, and most of them have an unknown or dubious safety record. The FDA is unable to check new ingredients for safety, but industry (and thus congressional) pressure has loosened regulation so a food company can declare their new dye/binding agent/vitamin spray as functionally equivalent to an ingredient already on the market.

    As an employee of an FDA-regulated industry, I'm sympathetic to the idea of writing a letter to declare equivalence. It saves a lot of time and effort to not resubmit a regulatory petition to something that you know is safe (e.g. if you manufacture a catheter that's 12 inches in length and make one that's 9 inches in length from the same material, etc., it's pretty easy to say your device is a functional equivalent). However, it can also be a lazy way out, especially if you're basing equivalence on an equivalent product, which was approved due to another equivalence. Like copying a videotape, at what point does it differ from the ingredient that was actually tested in a lab? You'll only know for sure through testing.

    Despite the shaky rabbit hole of logic used to approve food-grade substances, the author goes out of her way to interview and humanize actual employees of the food industry. They are painted as people who care greatly about their work, are generally helpful, and who also tend to defend their products and processes. Which makes sense because part of your job in a regulated industry is to do just that. Their words come across as corporate, sterile, or mush-mouthed, but that's the language spoken inside the bubble. But while many of the employees interviewed are legitimately excited about their work, many also prefer natural foods and stay away from those they produce. I imagine that seeing 40-odd ingredients piled into a cracker would turn one's appetite away from Wheat Thins for a few years.

    As to the ingredients that go into the food? You name it. Preservatives, dyes, binding agents, drying agents, and a whole host of other things I cannot remember act in concert to prevent clumping (but encourage a gooey texture), maintain sweetness, hold a chicken nugget in a nugget shape (until it reaches room temperature for a few hours), and taste like the best possible combination of salty, sweet, and crunchy. That's a hell of a lot of chemicals. Sadly, these food products are often sold as healthy, natural, or heart-smart, all based on dubious research, non-sensical comparisons (Froot Loops were deemed a "healthy choice" because they were "a better choice than a donut"), and more vague regulatory language (how does one certify a food as "natural"? It's impossible).

    The dream of America's industrial forties & fifties was the adoption of science to cure mankind's ills. A perfect food could be formulated in a lab and produced cheaply by our booming system of hyper-efficient factories. It would be sterile, coated in vitamins, and delicious, all because of the hard work of our best, smartest men. And, to be fair, science has done wonders for us and food. We no longer have to worry about iodine deficiency, for instance, and, as mentioned above, our food is fantastically safe.

    However, we're learning that more is not necessarily better. Vitamins are good, but vitamin supplements have been linked to cancer. Soy and tofu were ready to save the world in the 80s, and now their overuse is linked with an imbalance of the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, which is linked to a host of health issues. Natural, organic foods seem to be the answer to this suite of problems, and it makes a certain logical sense. We have no idea how these new ingredients interact, so let food be food.

    But as research churns on, I'm sure we'll find new evidence of the dangers of some leafy green, artificial sweetner, or food ending in -inoa, and we'll jump on the next bandwagon. Pandora's Lunchbox is a compelling collection of research and anecdotes that, if nothing else, tells us why we should hop off the bandwagon of our current industrial food supply.

  • Heather in FL

    So... another book to torture myself with. Considering I spend all my time working, reading, making sure my kids are fed, and on the internet, how am I ever going to find the time to actually make my own food at home from scratch so I'm not killing us all?

    I suppose the gist of the book wasn't *really* that everything is dangerous, but it was more "icky". And it left me with a feeling of desolation that science has mucked with food so much that it's barely even food anymore and most of it's not

    So... another book to torture myself with. Considering I spend all my time working, reading, making sure my kids are fed, and on the internet, how am I ever going to find the time to actually make my own food at home from scratch so I'm not killing us all?

    I suppose the gist of the book wasn't *really* that everything is dangerous, but it was more "icky". And it left me with a feeling of desolation that science has mucked with food so much that it's barely even food anymore and most of it's not even really nutritious, regardless of what the marketing says. The descriptions of what happens to food before it's packaged for our consumption is mind boggling. I'm not naive enough to think I can rid myself of processed foods entirely, but I'm going to make a conscious effort to reduce my reliance on them.

    There was so much information in this book that I'm listening to it a second time.

    Edit: Second time was just as good as the first. Maybe better because it reinforced what I'd learned the first time and reminded me of things I heard the first time but maybe forgot or remembered incorrectly. Great information.

  • Biblio Files (takingadayoff)

    There's some overlap here with Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss, but not as much as you might expect, considering that the topic is the same. While Moss takes a scrappy journalistic approach, Melanie Warner isn't necessarily looking for any dirt. She finds it anyway.

    You know the story already if you're even reading this review, let alone the book. Much of our food is overprocessed, overpackaged, and filled with fat, salt, sugar, and additives that may or may not be safe. The government agency tha

    There's some overlap here with Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss, but not as much as you might expect, considering that the topic is the same. While Moss takes a scrappy journalistic approach, Melanie Warner isn't necessarily looking for any dirt. She finds it anyway.

    You know the story already if you're even reading this review, let alone the book. Much of our food is overprocessed, overpackaged, and filled with fat, salt, sugar, and additives that may or may not be safe. The government agency that is supposed to be inspecting and ensuring safety is also responsible for promoting the food industry, which is a conflict of interest the consumer rarely comes out ahead of.

    Warner's book is not depressing or fatalistic though, in fact, it's really quite entertaining, if a little gross at times. I enjoyed her conversational tone and I learned a lot. One of my favorite interviews was the one with a specialist in adding artificial aromas to foods.

    A subtle theme runs through the book, aside from the more obvious one of buyer beware -- that none of the executives or scientists involved in creating and promoting and selling what passes for food, actually eats their products. They all eat home made food from fresh ingredients or eat at restaurants that specialize in organic and unadulterated ingredients.

  • Melissa

    Ok, so if you're picking up this book it's probably because you agree with what it's saying already. Personally I don't mind that, because I am one of those people who agrees with what the book is about. And in this case, Pandora's Lunchbox takes a look at processed food in the American diet. And it is kind of scary.

    There are thousands of additives that can be found in our food anymore. Ranging from things that help flavor, to dough conditioners, to texture enhancers, a simple piece

    Ok, so if you're picking up this book it's probably because you agree with what it's saying already. Personally I don't mind that, because I am one of those people who agrees with what the book is about. And in this case, Pandora's Lunchbox takes a look at processed food in the American diet. And it is kind of scary.

    There are thousands of additives that can be found in our food anymore. Ranging from things that help flavor, to dough conditioners, to texture enhancers, a simple piece of breaded chicken is no longer so simple. Or sometimes it's not even chicken. The author takes a look at how these additives are made, what they go into, and who the people are that develop them. She also researches historically to see who first invented this way of transforming our food, and even some safe food pioneers that helped get the FDA on its feet in the beginning.

    While Warner doesn't come outright and say any of these people are evil, she isn't sugar coating what they are doing either. All the food scientist she meets it would seem she asks the hard question of why we even do this sort of thing to our food. But she does take the time to note the extensive education and research that goes into developing these additives, and gives them their dues there. These are not stupid people researching food flavorings or stabilizers. And she also meets with people on the other side, although not as extensively. Towards the end she relates the story of a family who went off of processed food and how it improved their health.

    There was a lot of research done for this book and I appreciate the many attempts at interviewing people at the companies that make the processed food, even if they didn't always respond. At least she tried. And some of what she found what quite alarming. I don't want to give it away, but the guacamole story she had was VERY interesting. And I will make my own guacamole from now on probably. None of what she covers in this book is anything new, we all know that fresh foods are infinitely better for us than a frozen pizza, but some of what she finds is surprising. Like the use of additives in the organic and natural markets. I definitely learned a lot that I didn't already know in this book and as I sit looking at my soda that I'm drinking, it makes me feel bad about what I'm eating. Which is probably why my grandmother tells me to stop reading these kinds of books because she's frustrated with the foods I won't eat. Really, my only complaint about this book would be that it rambles at times. There were a few times where I became disinterested and found myself hurrying through to get to the next interesting fact.

    I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing. Buying whole foods and cooking them, but I will start trying to quit soda again, even if I will miss the caffeine. And I'll pay more attention to the natural products I buy too. A very good book for those people that are interested in what goes into their food.

    Pandora's Lunchbox

    Copyright 2013

    249 pages

    Review by M. Reynard 2013

    More of my reviews can be found at

  • B Schrodinger

    The trouble with books about food chemistry is they tend to be written by people with agendas and marketed by companies who want bold statements. Therefore the plethora of titles out there saying if you eat X YOU ARE GOING TO DIE! Everyone can appreciate that in general people are eating more and more pre-prepared food, and that also in general this type of food would never be as good as fresh produce and that this rising trend in changing diets has a lot of correlation with the rising trend in

    The trouble with books about food chemistry is they tend to be written by people with agendas and marketed by companies who want bold statements. Therefore the plethora of titles out there saying if you eat X YOU ARE GOING TO DIE! Everyone can appreciate that in general people are eating more and more pre-prepared food, and that also in general this type of food would never be as good as fresh produce and that this rising trend in changing diets has a lot of correlation with the rising trend in obesity.

    Melanie Warner takes us on a non-fanatical journey into the world of food chemistry from the perspective of an intelligent journalist. She is by no means a chemist or a nutritionist, and that may be a positive in most cases. However she does soon come to see that there are very little laws or conventions governing what is placed into foods and that what little regulation there is is flimsy and could never be governed properly.

    But what makes this book stand out is the stories and the interviews of people in the business and in the governance. We get wonderfully interesting chapters on subjects such as Kraft cheese, fast-food breads, frozen dinners and soy products. Here Melanie shows the shortcomings of pre-prepared foods by showing evidence and practices instead of anecdotal hoo-ha. It is not until the final chapter that she manages to go into anecdotal evidence and even then, after a whole book of investigation of evidence it is forgivable and not that preachy at all.

    Now I'm reading this as a chemist and a lot of the stories and visits to factories was laced with a bit of chemistry, which was only minimal, but I did enjoy. So maybe this work may lose some impact on the chemically inept. And indeed Melanie does help with those chemically inept by explaining the whole 'everything is a chemical. Chemical does not equal bad' for which I applaud her greatly. In fact it reminds me of this picture I came across recently:

    So overall this book does portray pre-prepared food in a mostly negative light. But as opposed other works it is well-reasoned and pragmatic in it's views. It is great read for anyone interested in science and how things are made. If you are a nutrition nazi, go seek out your propaganda elsewhere.

  • William Hamman

    There's nothing particularly new or startling in this book - I guess my feeling is that anyone who didn't know about the proliferation of (sometimes very odd) additives and processing techniques hasn't really been paying attention.

    But the material is presented in a fairly light and at times pretty amusing style, so even though it's not exactly penetrating investigative journalism, it's pleasant to read. Nor is it polemic - she never portrays the food scientists as evil, and never levels a parti

    There's nothing particularly new or startling in this book - I guess my feeling is that anyone who didn't know about the proliferation of (sometimes very odd) additives and processing techniques hasn't really been paying attention.

    But the material is presented in a fairly light and at times pretty amusing style, so even though it's not exactly penetrating investigative journalism, it's pleasant to read. Nor is it polemic - she never portrays the food scientists as evil, and never levels a particularly nasty accusation at anyone. Except for us: her point, which seems perfectly valid, is that food companies are in business to make money, and they bear no responsibility for what we as individuals choose to eat. If we go into the cereal aisle and buy a huge bag of Apple Jacks clones, well, whose fault is that?

    But I did have to skim the last chapter pretty ruthlessly, where the book stops being about processed food as such and turns into something else - more like an extended blog post than anything else. I think it was the sudden appearance of the word "yummy" that put me off the last chapter.

    Now, here's my challenge to the food scientists out there. I like Cheetos. I always have, and I always will. I am not challenging food scientists to make HEALTHY Cheetos, because I just don't think there's a way. Mostly I want to be able to eat Cheetos while I'm reading without smearing hideous orange fingerprints all over my books.

  • Scott

    I was all set to read Pultizer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Michael Moss's Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us when a friend pointed out that this book, Pandora's Lunchbox, also exists. Written by former Fortune and Times staffer Melanie Warner, and subtitled "How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal", Pandora's Lunchbox clearly covers much (all?) of the same appealing-to-me ground as Salt Sugar Fat, and the author's creds are pretty identical. With so many other great b

    I was all set to read Pultizer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Michael Moss's Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us when a friend pointed out that this book, Pandora's Lunchbox, also exists. Written by former Fortune and Times staffer Melanie Warner, and subtitled "How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal", Pandora's Lunchbox clearly covers much (all?) of the same appealing-to-me ground as Salt Sugar Fat, and the author's creds are pretty identical. With so many other great books out there, I'm wasn't going to read both, so based on little or nothing (one dual review, in the Journal), I opted for Pandora. Was it the right choice? I guess I'll never know... but there was enough meat here, plus a nice sprinkling of sly humor and fun facts, to make me not regret the decision. Too much.

    Anyway.

    In Pandora's Lunchbox, Warner takes a look at each of the major processed-food categories and factory techniques--soy protein, sodium-everythings, artificial (and "natural") flavors, extruding and gun puffing, etc.--offers a brief history of the beast, explains the science, shows why each has become so ubiquitous (almost always: the cheapest way to extend shelf life the longest), and takes a look at all the reasons why it's terrible for our bodies, minds, planet. There's some good stuff here, from trivia (55% of the entire state of Indiana is covered in either corn or soy plants!); to big-picture ruminating on how the corporate/capitalist system is, literally, poisoning us (though I wanted much more of this); to, in the book's closing chapter, a nicely done, inspirational story about how one middle-class Sacramento family completely changed their health and their lives by substituting a diet of non-stop crap with, you know, actual food. But ultimately Pandora's Lunchbox left me feeling unsatisfied. Much of Warner's reporting seems to involve quoting from company websites, and her in-the-field (or, more commonly, in-the-lab) scenes lack color, and zing. And the temptation to skim is strong in several sections of this short book, when she dives dryly into the chemistry of it all. Mostly, though, Pandora's Lunchbox made me grateful for the millionth time that I live in New York City, land of huge greenmarkets, superb bakeries and butchers, world-class supermarkets--not to mention a thousand great restaurants--so for me, eating excellent fresh food for every meal, every day, is cheap and easy.

  • Henri K

    I got this book because of an interview I heard with the author on NPR. I was intrigued about the history of processed food, especially how/where we source a lot of the ingredients that go into our food. I was disappointed to see a lot of descriptions along the line of "this ingredient is made using ____, which is also present in [bad thing]," which annoyed me because it's a facile argument and sometimes betrays a lack of understanding of science. She employs this often enough to make me wonder

    I got this book because of an interview I heard with the author on NPR. I was intrigued about the history of processed food, especially how/where we source a lot of the ingredients that go into our food. I was disappointed to see a lot of descriptions along the line of "this ingredient is made using ____, which is also present in [bad thing]," which annoyed me because it's a facile argument and sometimes betrays a lack of understanding of science. She employs this often enough to make me wonder whether I should believe anything else she writes in this book; I didn't have a way of knowing whether the rest of it was as shoddily reported. The final chapter was anecdotal and clearly had the intent of scaring the reader into never again eating processed food, but it was very clumsily written and had an air of "this kid's behavioral problems are ALL BECAUSE OF PROCESSED FOODS, SEE?!"

    Giving the rest of the book a generous reading yielded some interesting nuggets of information. For example, the history of breakfast cereal, how Subway can claim low-cal and low-fat in their foods, how the role of soy has evolved in our food supply, that kind of thing. I agree with the overall aim of the book -- we should all strive to eat food that is actually food, and a diet composed of too much processed food (food that you couldn't make yourself in the kitchen for all the stabilizers, chemicals, colorings, fillers, etc.) should be avoided -- so I wanted to like it more than I did. But alas.

  • Moira Russell

    Not as good as

    , and not as good as

    made me think, either (I have GOT to stop buying books based on nytimes.com reviews). Yeah, it's witty, or at least amusingly snarky here and there, but this book lacks the terrifying piling-on of detail in Moss or the deeper thoughts and elegant prose style of Pollan. I wouldn't say "don't read it," but get it from the library if you do.

  • Bogi Takács

    I did not expect to read this exact book over Shabbes, but I realized on Friday afternoon that it was due back to the library because someone put a hold on it. It loooked like a well-thumbed copy, too, which is usually a good sign.

    It was a fascinating read, though on occasion it did slip into "Evil Chemicals!!" I generally eat organic, and a lot of the foods she mentioned drew kind of a blank from me, not having grown up in the US - I think many of these food items are primarily mark

    I did not expect to read this exact book over Shabbes, but I realized on Friday afternoon that it was due back to the library because someone put a hold on it. It loooked like a well-thumbed copy, too, which is usually a good sign.

    It was a fascinating read, though on occasion it did slip into "Evil Chemicals!!" I generally eat organic, and a lot of the foods she mentioned drew kind of a blank from me, not having grown up in the US - I think many of these food items are primarily marketed toward children? ...Which is a point she does make and is somewhat terrifying to contemplate. But I greatly appreciated her discussion on how even if there are only a few things on the label, the actual process of assembling those few ingredients might still be kind of terrible. I never thought about that! I know about the issues in kosher meat production, but there you often buy a chunk of raw meat and not something like breaded saucy etc frozen pieces.

    Examples of Evil Chemicals where I felt this line of thought was a bit excessive: comparisons to crude oil and plastics were not always warranted. I'm perplexed why anyone would be surprised that the synthesis of vitamins is a chemical synthesis with many chemical steps. Well of course?! (I did think her discussion on how a vitamin in isolation might not be as helpful was great. But I have had a history of multiple vitamin deficiencies - probably due to absorption issues - and being able to get a large dose of a synthetic vitamin can be LITERALLY a lifesaver.)

    I thought her overall conclusion was fine - namely that it is probably not terribly unhealthy to eat some processed foods and TV dinners, just not constantly and with the exclusion of anything else. I thought that she brought many good points to substantiate this in detail. She also spoke to many food scientists working on processed foods. I was amused that many of these people were diehard organic food eaters in their own lives. It reminds me of how both of my parents originally trained as agricultural engineers and worked on big industrial state farms with All the Chemicals, and now they both eat organic. Surely anecdata, but quite telling.

    I also had some 'cultural differences moments', most notably when the author talked about extrusion as something most people don't know about food - when I was a child in Communist Hungary in the 1980s, "extruded corn" was a popular novelty snack, and it's frequently eaten in Hungary to this day. It's not supposed to have much of a nutritional value, though, it's just a fun snack. So I am genuinely surprised that American parallels to it are sometimes advertised as... healthy items?

    It was interesting to see that often the reasoning behind what's healthy is "well, it could be worse" which is a really poor argument, as the author correctly points out.

    Overall this was a fun and fascinating book to read. One point that made me sad is that many of the factories did not want to let her in, whereas when I read Kosher USA (I also recommend that book), very similar factories let in the author or were in general more forthcoming. I felt this was both due to a gender difference and also because "I'm a journalist writing about processed foods" sounds like a PR nightmare, whereas "I'm a researcher writing about the history of the kosher food industry" sounds like something that could be spun right by a talented PR person - from the factories' point of view. (It's definitely not about kashrut itself - a lot of store-bought kosher food is extremely processed, and many of the common American processed foods are kosher.)

    Now I want to read more about the food industry, because this is the second book about the topic that I pick up on impulse in the library, and I liked both...

    Source of the book: Lawrence Public Library

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