Lost in the Supermarket

April 9, 2013, 9:00 pm 
By MARK BITTMAN

“Last year, it seemed, every book about food that crossed my desk — other than those about cooking, of course — seemed to have one of two titles: “How I Moved to Brooklyn and Became a Roof-Gardening Butcher” or “The Gluten-Free Diet Saved My Life, and It Can Save Yours.”

This year is different; the books are variations on the title “How Big Food Is Trying to Kill You.” We have “Salt Sugar Fat,” my Times colleague Michael Moss’s epic description of the manipulation of processed food to make it even more palatable and addictive tomorrow than it was yesterday, and how the industry is well aware of how destructive of public health this manipulation truly is. We have the excellent “Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America” by Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food and Water Watch, which details the takeover of our food system by that same crew of corporate cynics.

And we have the cleverly titled “Pandora’s Lunchbox,” by Melanie Warner, a freelance (and former Times) reporter, which is so much fun that you might forget how depressing it all is. This is in part thanks to Warner’s measured, almost dry but deceptively alluring reportorial style, but it’s also because the extent to which food is  manipulated – and therefore, consumers as well — is downright absurd . There are more Holy Cow! moments here than even someone who thinks he or she knows what’s going on in food production could predict.

Warner, who notes that 70 percent of the food we eat is highly processed, says that “The big question is this: ‘What happens when you manipulate food, take it apart and put it back together again, all the while adding new or altered ingredients?’”

Cereal aisle, U.S.A.

Mike Blake/ReutersCereal aisle, U.S.A.

For instance: Warner writes of your food being “constructed from powders,” and uses as an example the Subway Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki sandwich. (The name alone feels like it took five geniuses two weeks of brainstorming to devise.) “Of the 105 ingredients,” (you read that right) “55 are dry, dusty substances” whose names sound familiar only to those who read labels, names like disodium guanylate, calcium disodium EDTA, and other things you probably don’t have lying around your kitchen.

Warner reserves much of her astonishment for the amoral food technologists she meets, many of whom decline to eat their own products, which include the much-discussed processed cheese, white bread, soybean oil (extremely complicated, but let’s just say that once you read about it you’ll stop buying it) and breakfast cereal.

On a trip to her local supermarket, she counted 215 different types of the latter, along with 120 types of soda, 94 sliced breads and 128 crackers. She does not pass up the opportunity to comment on this, noting that when it comes to cereal, at least, “we live in the land of boundless opportunity,” but that “our landscape of choices in the supermarket is not an undisturbed democracy. There’s no point in deliberating too long over what kind of oranges or tomatoes to buy. The decision has all been made for us: navel or Valencia; vine-ripened, cherry, or Roma.”

The reason, Warner explains, that it’s difficult to find a box of cereal that doesn’t contain a slew of added vitamins and minerals is “because the processes — extrusion, toasting at high temperatures, the ‘gun puffing’ process” (you’ll remember that Quaker Puffed Wheat and Rice are “shot from guns,” a process whose development Warner discusses in loving detail) — “destroys many nutrients, as well as fiber. Cereal manufacturers claim that their products are ‘wholesome, nutritious ways to start the day’ but almost all the nutrients in most breakfast cereals come from added vitamins.” Needless to say, she notes, “Their health benefits are vastly overstated.”

History plays a large part in “Pandora’s Lunchbox,” not only that of the development of processed food — again, hilarious as long as you have a sense of irony — but also that of the struggle to contain it. There are heroes here, most notably the late 19th- and early 20th-century crusader Harvey Wiley, who witnessed and fought against processed food. (Oreos were introduced in 1912, Kraft processed cheese in 1915.)

Wiley opposed – mostly unsuccessfully — saccharin (the first product marketed by Monsanto), cigarettes, soda and especially additives. His “Poison Squads” raised awareness — so much that when Upton Sinclair published “The Jungle,” public anger was pronounced enough so that President Theodore Roosevelt was compelled to sign into law the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, also known as the Wiley Act.

This was the foundation of the current Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.), so named in 1930. Warner, like many of us writing about these topics, is alternately angry and sympathetic with its current incarnation: “On the one hand their hands are tied, but there is a lot they could be doing within their authority to keep things that are known to be unsafe, like brominated vegetable oil and BHA, out of food. It’s not very heartening.”

We all know this, on some level — white bread and many breakfast cereals, at least, have been deemed worthless or worse for as long as most of us have been alive — yet most of us choose to ignore it, or we’re tired of our own outrage. When I pointed this out in a phone interview with Warner, she said that until recently “We didn’t know the true impact of these changes in food on our society and our health. Our diets have changed more in the last century than in the previous 10,000 years, when agriculture was introduced.”

Much of this was analyzed in books like “Fast Food Nation,” “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the groundbreaking (and, Warner and I agreed, under-credited) “Diet for a New America,” by John Robbins. “But,” as Warner notes, “there weren’t many books that delved into the strange and complex story of processed food and food science.”

This year, the 100th anniversary of Mallomars, that’s being remedied.”

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by | April 15, 2013 · 2:55 pm

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