When Melanie Warner began writing about food for The New York Times, she started an experiment to test the expiration dates of processed foods. She found that Kraft cheese slices would shrivel up and crystallize, frozen chicken nuggets would liquefy but not rot, and packaged guacamole would still look good enough to eat after seven months. Now in her first book, Pandora’s Lunchbox, Warner looks at the science, history, and politics behind these long-lasting packaged foods, and how eating things that mold won’t touch effects our health.
Much as the 2008 documentary Food, Inc. attacked commercially farmed milk and meat, Pandora’s Lunchbox assaults the rest of the food available in the grocery aisles. Warner is aware her readers mostly know the pitfalls of foods like soda and candy, so she devotes much of her space to attacking things that claim to be healthy, like breakfast cereals, low-fat frozen meals, and vitamin-packed snack foods. Her research produced plenty of information on the process behind turning corn into Corn Flakes. And she paints an unsettling picture about how companies tout simple ingredients, while chemically transforming them so they come in consistent shapes and sizes, last for a year on shelves, and have all their natural nutrition stripped away. Her points are disturbing: As she points out, because of a combination of genetic modification, commercial farming practices, and the abuse the meat sustains to become frozen food, most processed chicken meals require synthetic chicken flavoring.
Some of Warner’s most fascinating interviews are with the food scientists hatching up the next new thing. When an artificial-flavor designer raves about the super-fresh ingredients used at a local restaurant, Warner asks whether she feels like a hypocrite. The response Warner gets from many of these invested professionals is that not everyone can (or wants to) cook and eat produce, and the processed-food industry is working to make easy meals better and healthier.
Warner attacks that principle. She acknowledges that bottled vitamins and soy protein are a great boon for people who would otherwise be malnourished, but that food is more than the sum of its component parts. Lab-created fiber and vitamins can be added to anything, but only by depriving the body of the little-understood chemicals they’re often linked to. And even the challenge of digesting heartier foods makes the health claims dubious.
The rise of families with two working parents has dramatically cut down on the number of families eating fresh-cooked meals, but Warner also assigns part of the blame to commercials that make cooking seem hard and time-consuming. Unfortunately, she can only put forth anecdotal suggestions for combating the trend. Her dream that everyone could have access to real blueberries if we demand them seems lofty and unrealistic. Also, the number of times she praises Whole Foods could earn her an endorsement from the chain. Still, 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. Her appetite-suppressing depiction of processed foods is sure to do just that.