Getting food companies to reformulate their products into less bad versions of the original is not the answer

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

Melanie Warner is a journalist and former staff reporter for the New York Times. In Pandora’s Lunchbox, she takes us to the frightening but very real world of industrial processed food.

A lot of books dealing with food and agriculture were released in the recent years. Do you feel this is a long-term education, that people need to be prepared to accept those facts in order to change their behaviour also in the long term?

When I first started covering the food industry I was stunned by just how technical and complex so many of the foods we eat have become, and how little we know of this as a society. I wrote this book because I wanted to take people into the fascinating and sometimes scary world of food science and industrial processing, showing them how far removed so many of our favorite foods are from their natural state. Hopefully this book is one among many telling the story of where our food comes from and how our food systems operate. This knowledge is essential for people who want to have a more conscious, and ultimately healthier, approach to eating. Overall, I think it’s a slow process because changing the way you eat isn’t easy, but there’s evidence that so many Americans are now waking up the idea that we can’t blindly trust giant food corporations to do our cooking.

As you explained with the portrayal of the Struckmeier family who began cooking their own meals after years of processed food; adopting a healthy diet can be successful even if you never really learned to cook in the first place. However, a lot of families still consider that cooking takes too much time. How to set an example for children if parents do not cook? Should it be taught in schools, given the importance it has on one’s present and future health?

Yes! Getting kids to understand the concept of healthy food represents one of our best chances for changing our toxic food environment. Kids are naturally curious about nearly everything and food is no exception. Schools that plant gardens teach kids that all foods originate in the soil, not the shelves at the supermarket. Teaching kids basic cooking skills should be essential in all schools, though of course this is easier said than done. Perhaps it’s an after school activity or something that nonprofits start to take on as a priority. Cooking is immensely rewarding, both in terms of health and family relationships, and it’s not necessarily the time-zapping slave labor the food industry often makes it out to be. The other night, a busy Tuesday, I made a spinach salad and grilled hamburgers from fresh ground beef. Prep time: 15 minutes. Cleanup: minimal. Had we gone to a drive thru to get that meal, it would have taken nearly the same amount of time.

There is a paragraph about Michelle Obama’s first speech about childhood obesity, where she addressed the food industry and asked them to work towards “healthier” processed food, but where she did not antagonize them per se. It is indeed good news that the First Lady took action in the matter of such an important issue, but what is her speech if not a light reprimand that only encourages people to eat more processed food?

Getting food companies to reformulate their products into less bad versions of the original is not the answer. Eating Baked Lays, zero calorie vitaminwater and multigrain Pringles, Goldfish and Hot Pockets may seem to represent an improvement over the status quo, but ultimately these products only keep us tethered to a merry go round of confusing choices. I don’t mean to denigrate all the well-meaning efforts of food companies – they should keep trying to remove excessive sodium and replace those artificial, quasi-edible ingredients – but there’s only so much that these large publicly traded corporations can do and so often the way they define “healthy” is a farce. Those who genuinely care about public health should be urging Americans to eat a banana, not banana-flavored, multigrain and flax frozen waffles.

“Are people really going to start making food choices based on what’s best for them?”, you asked at one point in the book.
What do you think it will take to convince a whole nation that health is a priority?

In 1906, the publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle was the tipping point for the passage of the first federal legislation governing food. I’m not sure we’re going to see that concise of an event today. It’s likely to be more of a slow build as people read books and watch documentaries, or arrive at a tipping point in their own lives in relation to their health. The biggest way to avoid a future filled with chronic disease and physical suffering is to change what you eat, giving your body and mind the nutrition they need.

One of the chapters is called “Healthy Processed Food”, where you point out that some of the biggest food industry corporations such as PepsiCo or General Mills also sell healthy food such as unsweetened oats. Is there such a thing as healthy processed food? For instance, what to make of organic processed food?

There’s nothing healthy about an organic “toaster pastry” (otherwise know as a Pop-Tart) or a frozen pepperoni pizza made with white flour. Organic production ensures that pesticides aren’t being dumped into the environment and endangering the health of farm workers, but it says nothing about whether a particular box or bag in the supermarket is actually healthy. (Though if you’re going to buy Pop-Tarts the organic ones will ensure that you’re not consuming suspect ingredients like the preservative TBHQ, partially hydrogenated soybean oil and artificial food dyes.) Genuinely healthy processed foods are those that are minimally processed – frozen vegetables, bags of nuts, plain peanut butter, bags of washed spinach, cans of beans, packages of raw chicken breasts, tubs of hummus, etc. These foods are subjected to “processing” but in a very boring way that allows them to still resemble something that once resided on a farm.

You admit to have eaten more precooked meals than before during the writing of this book. Now that the book is released, what is your relation to processed food?

It was really that my kids ate more processed/precooked food as I found myself without any time to get to the store to buy fresh meat or fish or to think of something creative to make that they would eat. That usually meant more frozen chicken products and pizza deliveries than I would like. I am still a busy working mom, but thankfully now more normally busy. I practice what I preach in the book, which is a diet of real, nutritious food at its foundation. Processed food is fine in moderation, though I seek out the simpler versions without artificial ingredients. Though I’m happy to say that, in part because we live in a health-conscious place like Boulder, Colorado, our sons, 6 and 4, still have no idea what McDonald’s is.

Editorial reviews (2 reviews)

She’s never too preachy; she acknowledges that much of the food she condemns tastes delicious, and that she’s fed her kids plenty of frozen meals. She just asks readers to consider how they eat.

A well-researched, nonpreachy, worthwhile read.