Book Review: Pandora’s Lunchbox

Pandora’s Lunchbox

by Melanie Warner

 pandora's lunchbox

This fascinating book delves deep into just where all that processed food comes from and how it winds up in our grocery stores. While Salt Sugar Fat concentrated on the big three most often assailed food additives, Warner takes a different tack and delves into the world of where additives like vitamins and fiber come from, how dough conditioners infiltrated our bread, and the many lives of soy, to name a few.

It’s a pretty quick read with hardly any confusing jargon and a whole lot of — pardon the pun — food for thought. It will make you think twice about buying Kashi cereal or Clif bars, foods seemingly on the “better for you” end of the spectrum.

Did you know that just about every processed food additive — and there are more than 5,000 known ones — comes in the form of either a liquid goop or a fine white powder? I’m talking everything with a chemical-ly sounding name on the ingredients list. If you’re like me, you always check nutrition panels for things like Vitamin A and fiber you thought (and I did, until reading this book) added fiber must come from some sort of food, perhaps from added seeds and brown rice whatever. And vitamins must be derived from plants, right?

So wrong.

Just about half of those added vitamins are made in factories in China. Some of them used to be made in factories in America, but those all ended up being shut down because of all the environmental problems they were causing. Go figure: in order to put “healthy” things into our bodies, we have to pollute the world around us. But now we can just pollute China instead and no one minds, as long as Froot Loops still contain 100% of your recommended daily Vitamin C. And I don’t know about you, but China doesn’t exactly have the best reputation for exporting safe food products…but I digress.

Fiber, on the other hand, does sometimes come from food (or it can also come from things like wood pulp, deeeelish!), though not any foods you or I would probably want to eat. Turns out these fiber-powder processors buy the leftover starchy water from boiling potatoes and soy, then extract the fiber out of that using chemical and mechanical processes, once again ending up with a final product of a fine white powder.

So now that you have added all these powders to some cooked refined grains, no doubt it’s going to taste bitter and perhaps a bit metallic, and not anything like food. In swoops sugar and a host of flavorings to save the day!

You can see where I’m headed with this.

It wasn’t always this bad, though. At least we know now that processing kills those vitamins and antioxidents, and we can add them back in (though the effects are questionable). When processed foods first hit the scene, many of them were very lightly adulterated. For example, the original Kraft processed cheese was made simply by heating and stirring real cheese for a while, then poured into a can and sealed up. It could last 6 months in that tin, though once you opened it, you’d only get a week or so out of it. This is a far cry from today’s Kraft Singles Processed Cheese Product (yes, it says that right on the package and can’t even call itself a food), which have been enzyme-attacked and preservative-loaded into submission so it can last for who knows how long.

And many processed foods have been reimagined to be healthier versions of their original counterparts — though I would argue there’s a difference between “healthier” and “less bad.” Take, for instance, the simple potato chip. Ingredients: potatoes, oil, salt. We all know chips are not healthy for us, though, at least in the quantities we tend to consume them in. So Big Food started making baked chips — hallelujah! — to make us feel better about our indulgences. Except these chips have gone from a simple three ingredients to double that or more: added starches, soy lecithin (just one iteration of Big Food’s favorite ingredient!), and even sugar, yes sugar. Actually, Baked! Lays contain not one but two types of sugar in the ingredient list. And keep in mind that once you start in on the flavored varieties, you will be adding all sorts of “natural” and artificial flavors, whatever that means. More chemicals, is what. Is it worth saving 40 calories per ounce?

Actually, these “better” choices can have the exact opposite of the intended effect: Say you know potato chips aren’t healthy, so you only indulge in a bag from the deli once a week, consuming 200 calories. But then they start selling baked variaties, and you think, “These aren’t so bad for me!” so you buy them three times a week and end up consuming 140 calories a bag — 420 calories over the course of a week, more than double what you ate when you chose regular chips. Now compound this with the low-fat ice cream and cookies at home, or the sugar-free pudding, and the bags of 99% fat-free popcorn. No wonder obesity is more rampant than ever even when “healthy choices” abound.

And then there’s soy. What’s made with soy? Well, what isn’t made with soy? First the (probably genetically modified) beans make soybean oil, which is not pressed like healthful olive oil but chemically stripped from the bean, most commonly using hexane, which can cause nervous system failure from long-term exposure (though at much higher levels than typically found in food products). After this, it still has some grassy or beany flavor, and being an oil, a natural tendency to go rancid. So more chemicals fix these issues. Soybean oil is found in a whole multitude of products, often sold under the innocuous “vegetable oil”, and often to restaurants for their deep fryers.

Then the leftover soy meal is sold off to feed lots (You are what your food eats, too) or to food manufacturers, who isolate the protein from the carbohydrates to make your veggie burgers or Clif bars or soy milk or just about every processed food out there. Soy protein can add bulk to chicken nuggets for a whole lot less money than real chicken — which translates to bigger profits. And that’s what it all boils down to. Well, that, and a fine white powder.

Maybe there’s hope for processed food in the future. Most food scientists say they’re trying to invent healthier foods that don’t sacrifice nutrition. But there’s still so much out there we are just starting to figure out. Avoid foods that claim to be loaded with fiber, vitamins, and/or antioxidents on the box. Whole plant foods contain all these and more, they just don’t have a marketing department. As for soy, we simply can’t avoid it in our Western diet. It’s. In. Everything. It’s said to be good for us; a low-cost, high-quality protein. But in its highly processed form, it’s hard to ignore that most, if not all, of the health benefits have been lost. What we can do is try to minimize it as much as possible for any hope at some sort of healthy balance.

It’s best to stick with “food that’s grown, not made.”

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