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Pandora’s Lunchbox: Pulling Back the Curtai n on How Processed Food Took Over the America n Meal

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  • Romi Elnagar
    Pandora’s Lunchbox: Pulling Back the Curtain on How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 2, 2013
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      Pandora’s Lunchbox: Pulling Back the Curtain on How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal

      AMY GOODMAN: As we continue deep inside the $1-trillion-a-year
      "processed-food-industrial complex," we turn to look at how decades of
      food science have resulted in the cheapest, most abundant, most
      addictive and most nutritionally inferior food in the world. And the
      vitamins and protein added back to this processed food? Well, you might
      be surprised to know where they come from. That’s the focus of a new
      book by longtime food reporter Melanie Warner, author of Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal.
      Melanie, welcome to Democracy Now! She’s joining us from
      Denver, Colorado. Vitamins, vitamin-added food. You think you go to the
      grocery store, and you want to get a little added punch, and you want to ensure that your kids, that your family, has added vitamins. What’s the problem with that?
      MELANIE WARNER: Yeah. Well, hi, Amy. It’s great to be here.
      You know, one of the things with processed food that I found while
      doing this book, is not only that it has an abundance of the things that Michael was talking about—salt, sugar, fat—it’s also what it’s lacking, which, it turns out, is naturally occurring nutrition, in many cases.
      So that’s vitamins and minerals and fiber and things like antioxidants.
      So, you take something like cereal—you know, you walk down the cereal aisle, and you’re bombarded with health messages: It’s high in vitamin
      D, a good source of calcium, fiber, antioxidants. You see these things
      all over the package. And one of the things—one of the questions I asked myself when I was starting to work on this book was: Why is it nearly
      impossible to find a box of cereal in the cereal aisle without vitamins, added vitamins and minerals, in the ingredient list?
      And it turns out, because most cereal has very little inherent
      nutrition. And this is in part because of processing. The processing of
      food is very intensive. It’s very—it’s very technical, and with cereal,
      can be very damaging to naturally occurring nutrients, especially
      vitamins and oftentimes fiber. So, what manufacturers do is they add
      back in vitamins. So, essentially, you see all these wonderful claims on the package, but essentially—and you look at the panel, and you’re
      getting 35 percent and 40 percent of your recommended daily allowance of these vitamins, but they’re essentially added in like a vitamin pill,
      which many people maybe are already taking in the morning.
      And I was really surprised to learn where some of these vitamins come from. I never really thought about it in much detail, as probably most
      people don’t. But it turns out that they’re—these vitamins are not
      coming from the foods that contain them. Like vitamin C does not come
      from an orange, and vitamin A does not come from a carrot. It’s very far from that. They come from things that really aren’t actually foods.
      Vitamin D, for instance, was probably the most shocking. It comes from
      sheep grease, so actually the grease that comes from sheep wool. You
      have giant barges and container ships that go from Australia and New
      Zealand over to China, where most of—a lot of our vitamins are produced. About 50 percent of global vitamin production comes from China inside
      these huge factories, very industrial processes. A lot of vitamins are
      actually chemical processes.
      AMY GOODMAN: Wait.
      MELANIE WARNER: And they’re very technical and complex.
      AMY GOODMAN: A lot of people, if they’re with someone, they’re looking at them right now. Wait a second. So, China gets all these shipments of sheep wool
      from Australia, and they’re pulling the sheep grease off of them to make vitamin D?
      MELANIE WARNER: Yeah, sheep grease is actually very useful for a lot of things. It can
      be used to make moisturizer in lip balm. It can be used for industrial
      purposes, for lubricants for engines and machines and things like that.
      But one of its uses is to be converted, through a number of chemical
      steps and chemical processes, to vitamin D, which is added to our food
      and used in supplements. So, yeah—
      AMY GOODMAN: What about—
      MELANIE WARNER: —it’s just one of—
      AMY GOODMAN: What about nylon, Melanie? What does nylon have to do with vitamins?
      MELANIE WARNER: Yeah, it’s one of—it’s one of these chemicals that goes into the making of one of the B vitamins. It’s many—there are many food additives,
      actually, that are used in food but actually also have industrial
      purposes associated with them. One of my favorites is a chemical called, a food additive called azodicarbonamide, and that’s actually used quite extensively in bread and bread-type products, and it’s used as a dough
      conditioner and a manufacturing aid. And its main use outside of the
      manufacturing of bread is for creating foamed plastic, so things like
      yoga mats.
      And I encountered some news articles a number of years ago where a
      tanker truck overturned on the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago carrying
      azodicarbonamide. And city fire officials had to issue their highest
      hazmat alert and evacuate everyone up to a half mile downwind because of this chemical spill. So you look at something like that, and you
      wonder: Is this something that we really want in our morning toast and
      our—the bread that goes on our turkey sandwiches?
      AMY GOODMAN: Well, that’s a very important question. Now, of course, the processed
      food industry, the gross sales are enormous, but you may have redefined
      "gross" sales. Let’s talk about some of the experiments the scientist
      Melanie Warner conducted. Talk a little about chicken tenders.
      MELANIE WARNER: Yeah, I’m not much of a scientist, but a number of years ago, when I
      started covering the food industry, I became curious about expiration
      dates that are printed on packages. Pretty much you to go into the
      supermarket, and every package in the store will have an expiration date on it. And I wondered: Well, what will happen? What do these expiration dates mean, and what will happen after this date has come and gone?
      Some of these dates are actually quite far out; they’ll be six to nine
      months or even more.
      So I started collecting a number of food products, and I saved them
      in my office. And then I would open them after the expiration dates had
      passed, sometimes long after the expiration dates had passed because I
      had forgotten about them. And what I found out over time—I collected all kinds of products: cereal, cookies, Pop-Tarts, fast-food meals, frozen
      dinners, I mean, you name it. I have all kinds of gross stuff in my
      office at this point.
      And what I found—there were a few exceptions—but what I found was
      that most of this food did not decompose or mold or go bad, even after
      long, long periods of time. I mean, I started this seven, eight years
      ago, and I still have slices of cheese that are perfectly orange,
      processed cheese.
      AMY GOODMAN: From years and years and years ago?
      MELANIE WARNER: Years and years and years ago, yeah. And they’re—
      AMY GOODMAN: And what keeps their color? And what keeps them looking—
      AMY GOODMAN: —completely preserved?
      MELANIE WARNER: There are a variety of reasons for this, depending on the product.
      Sometimes it’s because of powerful chemical preservatives that are in
      it. Sometimes it’s because of additives that lower the acidity of
      products, so that no microorganisms can grow. And sometimes it’s because food manufacturers very intentionally remove all the water from
      products. That’s the case with cereal and cookies.
      AMY GOODMAN: Melanie, right now, for our TV viewers, we’re showing images of guacamole, bought in a store, presumably—
      MELANIE WARNER: Yes, right.
      AMY GOODMAN: —you know, maybe even a Whole Foods-type store, you know, a natural food store—
      AMY GOODMAN: —and your own guacamole, and the difference how long it’s preserved.
      MELANIE WARNER: Yeah, I think this was an unusual tub of guacamole, and it had an
      unusual dose of food additives. My husband came back from the store with it one day and said, "Oh, they announced—made an announcement that they made it fresh over at the deli." So I thought, "Oh, this is great." And I looked at the ingredients, and there were some ingredients on there
      that I had never even heard of. And I was spending a lot of time doing
      research on food additives. So I kind of—I put it away, I stored it in
      the fridge. And I thought, "Well, I’ll look into this later and see what these additives are."
      And then, an interesting thing happened about nine months later. I
      completely forgot about it in the back of the fridge. My mom, who lives
      with us, she announced that she had tried some of the guacamole. And I
      thought she was referring to a recent purchase that I had made at a
      different store that we had bought for a party. But I thought, you know, I think a lot of that’s—that’s gone. And it turns out that she had
      tried the old guacamole, the nine-month-old stuff. And I was horrified,
      because she’s an older person, she’s in her early eighties, and
      food-borne illness in older people is no small thing. So I was terrified that she was going to be horribly ill. In fact, she wasn’t. She was—
      AMY GOODMAN: Because the guacamole was how old?
      MELANIE WARNER: Nine months. It was nine months old, yeah. So—and she had eaten it
      because it had no mold on it, it didn’t smell bad. It was a little
      bit—when I looked at it, it was a little bit discolored around the
      edges, you know? So some people might have thought, "Oh, maybe I’m not
      going to eat it." But she looked at it and thought, "Oh, this is a nice
      guacamole." So... And in the end, thankfully, she had only had a little
      bit, and she was totally fine. She had no effects whatsoever.
      AMY GOODMAN: Melanie, 15 seconds before we end part one of this discussion. What most surprised you?
      MELANIE WARNER: I think just the overall extent to which the technology and food
      science has merged with food production, and the level of engineering
      that goes and the level of technology and the level of processing that
      goes into—that goes into our food. And also, the extent to which the FDA is not watching over what goes into our food in terms of food additives very closely.
      AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to—
      MELANIE WARNER: I was very—
      AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to talk soy products in part two. Melanie Warner, longtime
      journalist covering the food industry, her new is called Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal.
      Juan González will be in Phoenix tonight, in Albuquerque, as well in Santa Fe. Check our website at democracynow.org.

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