This is a guest post from my husband, Jason Leake, and is part of his interview series for the blog. To learn more about Jason check out our team page.
Melanie Warner wondered how a piece of individually wrapped cheese could retain its shape, color, and texture for years. She started running this and other “food experiments” in her home, including chicken nuggets that turned to liquid mush, while simultaneously conducting research that took her to food science departments, research labs and factories around the country. A mother and former New York Times business reporter, Melanie offers up a behind the scenes look at the processed food industry in her eye-opening new book, Pandora’s Lunchbox, which just so happens to contain an interview with one of our very own 10-Day Pledge graduates, Darcy Struckmeier and family! How cool is that?
As I read Pandora’s Lunchbox in preparation for today’s interview, I was impressed not only by the information provided, but by the entertaining and easy style in which Melanie communicates. If you have friends or family members who “just don’t get” why anyone would avoid processed foods, this is the perfect read to pull back the curtain and to silently challenge them – in a non-confrontational way – to decide what they’ll do with their new found knowledge. Check out the excerpt after the interview to see what I’m talking about. Personally I’ve found the more I learn, the less I am swayed by the processed food industry’s (often disguised) marketing. On that note here are some points that are becoming very clear to me…
What I am Learning About the Processed Food Industry
- Food manufacturers formulate their products for maximum profit by placing priority on convenience, taste, and low cost – not nutrition or health (despite token offerings).
- These products are literally engineered by food scientists to make you crave them and then they are heavily marketed to you (the worst offenders being marketed directly to children) to the point where they are expected as commonplace in our everyday lives.
- The quest for low manufacturing cost and repeat sales almost always results in products that are of lower quality and nutritional value, and in some cases these products are actually harmful due to food additives and processing methods.
- Food manufacturers typically operate within the confines of the laws and regulations they help set up – through lobbying the government – and often fight labeling and other regulations that would empower you, the consumer, to make educated choices.
- Make no mistake, profit is the #1 top priority.
I was conflicted when reading Pandora’s Lunchbox because I run a business and can totally understand wanting to maximize profits (while adhering to our mission statement of course). It’s a fun challenge to optimize a business. But things quickly become different when you move from a very small business to a huge corporation that runs like a machine. You have very passionate and very real people – food scientists, marketers, nutritionists, lobbyists, etc. – doing their individual jobs well, but the combined results are just astonishing. But don’t take my word for it…
Melanie Warner Interview
1 What makes you an expert on the processed food industry? Tell me about your research.
When I started covering the food and beverage industries 8 years ago, I was amazed by how complex and technical so much of our food had become. Food scientists seemed to have their own language that made what we eat seem like it was no longer really food. In the book I wanted to tell the story of how the march of technology through the 20th century helped turn Americans into the most overfed and undernourished nation in the world. I spent two years doing research, talking to dozens of food scientists, going to a variety of industry trade shows and visiting university food science departments. I traveled to places that are or have been central to our food production, like Battle Creek, Michigan, the birthplace of breakfast cereal, and Decatur, Illinois, the soybean capital of the world.
2 In terms of disposable income, today we pay less than half of what we did for food in 1950 (20.6 % then vs. 9.8% now), and the least of any other country. How is this possible? Why isn’t this a good thing?
The steadily declining cost of food over the last half century is due to both the incredible engineering ingenuity and manufacturing efficiency of food manufacturers and the massive consolidation that’s happened across the American farm landscape. It’s hard to argue against cheap food on an individual level – no one wants to be forced to pay more for their food. But across our society, cheap food is having disastrous consequences. All those dollar menu double cheeseburgers, 89-cent tacos and family-sized bags of chips have costs not reflected at the register. With 75% of our medical care spending going to diet-related chronic diseases, so many of us are already paying these hidden food costs, in the form of increased health insurance premiums and plans that continue to cover less and less.
3 Can you elaborate on the “…central paradox of the food processing industry – that nutrition and convenience are sometimes at odds with one another.”?
This fact became apparent long ago, just after the turn of the 20th century, when W.K. Kellogg, founder of what would become a breakfast empire, decided to remove the corn germ from his Corn Flakes. The oil in the germ was going rancid and causing the cereal to have an off-taste and smell. This new move successfully extended the cereal’s shelf life but reduced its nutritional value since the germ is home to most of corn’s vitamins. A century later, it’s still the case that whole foods often don’t jive with the demands of making processed food. Muffins with actual blueberries won’t last more than a few days; but those with fake blueberry bits composed of sugar, corn starch, blue coloring and blueberry flavoring can last for weeks, if not longer. And sometimes just the simple fact of a food needing to have long shelf life is detrimental to its nutritional value, since many vitamins aren’t stable and degrade over time.
4 A common theme with processed foods is to try to add back the nutrients that are lost in processing by adding vitamins (this is called fortification and commonly seen in breakfast cereals). Can we really put Humpty Dumpty back together again?
Despite food’s central role in everyone’s life, it’s amazing to realize that there’s still quite a lot we don’t know about it. Plant foods are believed to contain tens of thousands of so-called beneficial phytochemicals (things like polyphenols and flavonoids), of which only about 10,000 have been identified. Scientists know very little about how all these compounds function in the body and how they interact with all the various other components of food, like vitamins, minerals and enzymes. One biologist I spoke with said he believes that polyphenols in particular are the most bioactive components in food, more so than vitamins, because they have more biological mechanisms associated with them. So no, we certainly can’t put Humpty back together if we don’t even know how he was built in the first place.
5 Can you comment on the source, quality, and efficacy of vitamins used to fortify processed foods or sold as supplements?
I was surprised to learn that about 50% of all vitamins produced globally come from factories in China. And whether they’re made using chemical synthesis or a bacterial process, the starting point is never food. It’s things like sorbitol, sheep grease, acetone, and coal tar chemicals. If you’re deficient in a particular vitamin, these synthetic versions can be quite efficacious. But they’re not the same thing as getting vitamins from real food, which includes a whole host of other beneficial components, some of which may be necessary for those vitamins to work most effectively in our bodies.
6 What’s the big deal with refined oils, and how do we know which to avoid?
Never before in human history have we consumed such vast quantities of extracted vegetable oils, such as soybean oil, the dominant one in our diets. Prior to the 20th century, vegetable fat came in sparing amounts from eating foods like nuts and seeds. Now it comes by the billions of pounds from massive extraction and refinement facilities like the one I saw in Decatur, Ill, which is home to the agribusiness giant ADM. These oils are produced using hexane, a neurotoxic petrochemical that’s monitored by the EPA because of its ability to be harmful to human health.
But the problem with soybean oil is not hexane, since the chemical exists in only small traces in the finished product. Soybean oil is a health concern because of the excessive quantities we’re consuming thanks to its inclusion in so many processed foods. It’s in everything from baked goods and processed meats to frozen dinners and peanut butter. And it’s the predominant oil used in frying vats at restaurants. As a result, soybean oil, an omega 6 fat, is upsetting our body’s important omega 3/omega 6 balance and overwhelming our internal antioxidant systems. On top of that, soybean oil and other polyunsaturated vegetable oils are inherently unstable and when subjected to heat, such as in fast food fryers, break down into harmful substances called toxic aldehydes, a recently discovered problem that hasn’t gotten the attention it needs to.
Better choices are monounsaturated oils like olive oil and high-oleic sunflower oil or even saturated fats like coconut and palm oil. All these are more stable with minimal omega 6s. And while saturated fat isn’t good in excess, it’s not nearly as bad for our health as we once thought. In fact, some scientists now believe that it has little to no correlation with heart disease. Moreover, some saturated fats, like stearic acid, found in chocolate, among other things, are even thought to be beneficial.
7 What’s so concerning about soy products, and does this apply to everything soy? I was shocked to read that “a USDA rule used to limit ‘vegetable protein product’ in school lunch meat to no more than 30 percent, but after lobbying by Solae (a soy product manufacturer), this limit was removed in 2000.”
That’s just one example of how the food industry has been quite effective at influencing government policy. Soy protein can be used as a cheap filler or extender for processed meat products, so it’s handy in the school lunch program where meals have to be served for less than $3 per child.
Few foods have a more confusing nutritional rap sheet than soy, and part of the reason for this is that there are so many different iterations of it. Fermented soy foods made from whole soybeans – tempeh, soy sauce and miso – and other whole soy foods like edamame and tofu are quite nutritious and retain many of the soybean’s nutrients. But highly processed soy ingredients like soybean oil and soy protein have had most of their nutrition stripped out. There’s also evidence that whole soy foods may be different when it comes to estrogen-like compounds in soy called isoflavones. Some studies show that isoflavones can promote cancer growth, but whole soy likely contains various compounds that help counter these carcinogenic effects. This is why soy infant formula should probably be avoided since it is made from isolated soy protein.
8 What are your thoughts on GMOs (which are so prevalent in processed foods)?
There are more problems with GMOs than benefits. They certainly benefit the companies making them (Monsanto and Dupont) and to some extent the farmers planting them because they make farming easier and less labor intensive. But at this point, for GMOs as they exist today, that’s it. Consumers get no benefits from eating GMOs and they have resulted in more chemical pesticides and herbicides being dumped into the environment, not less. And now with the problem of weed resistance, some of the benefit to farmers is eroding.
As far as what GMO corn and soybean ingredients are doing to us when we eat them, that’s something that clearly hasn’t been studied, in part because Monsanto and Dupont have been unwilling to allow scientists unfettered access to their patented seeds for research purposes. Until we have some independent science showing that the consumption of novel GMO proteins and trace amounts of plant-generated pesticides in our foods are fine, I think we should be skeptical. At the very least, GMOs should be labeled, so people can know what they are buying.
9 What are we to make of all the health claims on the front of boxes of processed foods?
Health or nutrition claims on packages are usually more about marketing than facts. A product touting that it’s high in vitamin D is usually doing so because vitamin D has been added. The same goes for many boxes mentioning fiber. Antioxidants? Usually the addition of vitamins C and/or E. This trick of focusing on one or two nutrients or ingredients is designed to make you assume that the product is somehow healthy or wholesome, though in reality that high fiber, vitamin-packed item may be loaded with sugar. One of my favorite examples is packages of hot dogs that say ‘No artificial flavors or by-products,’ and then they include sodium nitrite (linked to cancer and known to trigger migraines in sensitive individuals) and sodium hexametaphosphate (a contributor to phosphate overconsumption) among the ingredients. After all, if food is truly healthy, it doesn’t need a health or ingredient claim.
While many people are eager for the food industry to help us solve the problem of obesity and steer America onto a healthier course, the truth is that there’s only so much these large publicly traded corporations can do. So often the way they define “healthy” is a farce. Eating Baked Lays, zero calorie Vitamin Water and multigrain Pringles, Goldfish and Hot Pockets may seem like it represents an improvement over the status quo, but ultimately these remodeled, less-bad (but still highly processed) products only keep us tethered to a merry go round of confusing choices.
10 How many foods additives are used in our food in the US?
There are more than 5,000 allowed food additives, and the startling thing to me about this number is not only its size, but the fact that it’s not a statistic you can find anywhere on an FDA web site. The government isn’t actually aware of all the additives going into food because of a loophole that allows companies to start selling a new ingredient without ever informing the FDA. The 5,000 figure includes an estimate done by the Pew Health Group of some 1,000 of these ghost additives.
11 What does “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) mean? And what is the significance of the FDA notification process introduced in 1997?
The GRAS system was originally intended to be a sideshow in the regulatory process (it was to be used for commonly consumed ingredients everyone knew to be safe), but instead it’s become the main event. It functions as a self-regulatory system and is not very rigorous. For instance, there’s no requirement that ingredient companies do any testing on new additives and no mechanisms for transparency, such as for the public to view data on new ingredients or comment about them. A rule issued in 1997 served to make food additive regulation even weaker because it allowed companies to make their own determinations about an additive’s safety, rather than the FDA having to formally respond to a petition.
Part of the problem is that the FDA is chronically underfunded for its job of overseeing our monumentally large and complex food supply. Nor does the agency have the political will or muscle to take on food industry giants who would fight the FDA tooth and nail to avoid, for example, warning labels on foods with food dyes or to ban trans fats. Rather than caving to the food industry, the FDA doesn’t even take on the fight. Their approach in recent decades has been timid.
12 So what does that mean for the average shopper? Are we consuming untested additives or untested combinations of additives on a daily basis?
Yes, unfortunately. The Pew Health Group has found that more than half of all additives going into food have never been subjected to toxicology testing on rats or mice and almost none of them are tested for their interactions with other chemicals. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that all these additives are causing us grave harm. Although most food additives provide no nutritional value, allow for the substitution of real food, and enable the cheapest means of production possible, I’d like to think that the vast majority of them (though definitely not all) are probably safe. The problem is we really don’t know.
13 Is it like this in other countries?
There are some controversial additives, such as the artificial sweetener aspartame, that are also legal in Europe. But in general, the EU takes a more precautionary and consumer-friendly approach to food additives. Potassium bromate, azodicarbonamide and brominated vegetable oil, for instance, are banned in Europe and elsewhere. And foods that are made with artificial food dyes must include a warning label indicating that these substances have been linked to hyperactivity in kids. Here in the U.S., the FDA has actually acknowledged that in the case of children with ADHD and other behavioral problems, food dyes may exacerbate their conditions, but the agency has taken no action on the issue.
14 I get a feeling we’ve been hoodwinked. Has the processed food industry really succeeded in redefining “normal” for us through their intense marketing and lobbying efforts?
Absolutely. What we eat and the way we eat would be completely baffling to a person living a hundred years ago. The food industry has successfully encouraged people to stop doing their own cooking, snack constantly throughout the day (do Americans really need a “fourth meal”?), have meals inside a car, and consume a steady supply of foods that bear little resemblance to things grown or raised on a farm. In all fairness, too, our lifestyles have changed dramatically over the past century, with two-wage households and a round-the-clock workday the norm, making processed foods seem an ideal solution to our need for convenience.
As a culture, we’ve come to a point where we blindly entrust multinational food corporations with one of our most intimate and important acts as human beings – that of nourishing ourselves and our children. We eat what Kraft, Tyson and Taco Bell decide to put on the menu without ever thinking about where all this food came from and what’s really in it. Multinational food giants aren’t evil, but they’re designed to care about sales and profits, not health. If our physical and emotional well-being matters, we can’t be so willing to outsource so much of our cooking to them.
15 What’s the way out? How do we change the health of our nation?
I think education is critical, particularly with kids. Getting our children 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 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. We need to teach people that 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.
I don’t think it’s a good idea to try and regulate what the food industry sells, although there are two changes at the national level that would make a difference:
- A diversion of farm subsidies from the crops that serve as processed foods’ building blocks (corn, soy and wheat) toward healthy fruits and vegetables.
- The implementation of strict nutritional guidelines for foods that can be marketed to kids, with marketing defined in the broadest possible sense. Such guidelines were proposed by government agencies in 2010 but after the food industry howled in protest, they were quietly buried.
16 Tell me about your visit with the Struckmeier family (one of our 10 Days of Real Food graduates!). What did you learn?
I spent some time in Sacramento with Darcy, her husband Shawn and their four kids, all of whom were an incredible inspiration. This was a family that went from eating fast food three or four times a week to preparing lots of home-cooked meals. They switched from refined grains to whole grains, cut way down on sugar and became avid label readers, refusing to buy anything with food dyes, artificial preservatives and other highly technical ingredients. Darcy was lucky to have grown up with a mom who cooked, so she wasn’t completely intimidated by the idea of being in the kitchen. So often kitchen illiteracy gets passed down from the previous generation.
Because the Struckmeiers are by no means rich, all these changes required some strategic shopping and meal planning. But the results were almost immediate. Darcy saw a stunning improvement in her energy levels; she no longer had desperate sugar crashes. Her husband’s chronic heartburn disappeared. Their daughter’s constipation cleared up, and their 13-year old son’s lifelong behavioral problems improved dramatically to the point where he almost seemed like a different person.
What I learned from the Struckmeiers is that eating well is really about what we choose to value in life. They decided that their food choices matter and that family dinners are more important than having their kids enrolled in multiple extracurricular activities scheduled at all hours of the afternoon and evening. This notion of food as sacred and powerful was part of the innate wisdom of so many of our ancestors, but we’ve completely lost it in recent years.
17 We often get asked for a list of the “worst ingredients to avoid,” but I get a little frustrated by this question because I think it misses the point. I usually refer people to our Real Food Defined page but am curious, how would you answer?
It’s hard to winnow it down because the core issue is not really that certain individual ingredients are harmful. It’s the long-term accumulation of so many additives at every meal, over and over again. But if forced to pick, here are three in no particular order:
- Artificial food colorings – known by the FDA to cause hyperactivity in “susceptible children with ADHD and other problem behaviors;” may cause such problems in a general population.
- The artificial sweeteners aspartame and sucralose – recent studies have shown that aspartame encourages tumor growth in rats and mice; sucralose, or Splenda, has been shown to reduce beneficial gut bacteria.
- Sodium nitrite – can break down into nitrosamines, which are known to cause cancer.
18 Any closing thoughts?
It’s important not to get too strident about all this. Processed food can have its role in our lives and there’s nothing wrong with some junk food indulgences. Food is meant to be enjoyed. My hope is that we move toward a place where more and more Americans start to grasp the profound pleasures of eating fresh, healthy food.
Thanks to Melanie for spending time with us today and for packaging her research into such an easy to digest book, Pandora’s Lunchbox. I urge our readers to please read and share this book (and this interview)! You can purchase it here on Amazon.