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About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Kenneth W. Krause reviews Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal by Melanie Warner (Scribner, 2013). Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer.

Food For Thought

by Kenneth W. Krause

A mericans currently spend less than ten percent of their disposable income on food, as opposed to more than twenty percent in 1950. Pasteurized milk has saved millions of us from outbreaks of campylobacter and E. coli. Our meats and vegetables last longer than ever and, when prepared with a modicum of skill and restraint, taste pretty good too. Why? Because natural is not always better and because science delivers marvelous outcomes.

Unadulterated science, that is. The equation gets a little messier, on the other hand, when incorrigible greed, governmental hypocrisy, and popular indifference (or blind faith) are entered into the calculation. So the new, real-world result for most Americans is, to say the least, less than appetizing: Seventy percent of American calories now come from industrially processed foods, an $850 billion per year venture.

Highly nutritious and generally affordable vegetables, eggs, fresh meats, fruits, beans, and nuts, for example, are commonly forsaken for their obscurely constructed, pre-packaged, and fast-food counterparts. In only the last century or so, says business journalist Melanie Warner, we have acceded to the “most dramatic nutritional shift in human history,” consuming twice the added fats, half the fiber, sixty percent more added sugar, three times the sodium, and immeasurably more corn and soybean product.

In Pandora’s Lunchbox, Warner exposes the “weird science” of food disassembly and reconstruction commonly applied by various food technologists and manufacturers including National Starch, Kraft, Tyson, General Mills, Sysco, and Pepsi. Subway’s Sweet Onion Teriyaki sandwich, for instance, contains 105 ingredients, more than half of which are “dry, dusty substances” added to the meat (13), bread (22), teriyaki glaze (12), and fat-free sweet onion sauce (8). “Eat fresh” indeed!

Yes, corporate food scientists have a lot on their plate. The end product must not only taste good and withstand the heat and physical wear and tear of processing; it must be consistent from package to package and possess an uncannily protracted shelf life. Perhaps most imperatively, however, processed foods need to be cheap, efficiently produced, and at the same time, marketable as “healthy.”

Consider breakfast cereals as one especially egregious example. There are good ones (Cheerios and Corn or Bran Flakes) and bad ones (Fruit Loops and Cocoa Puffs), right? Not so much.

One-fifth of all Americans and a whopping one-third of their kids, support a $10 billion per annum business nearly every morning. Boxed cereals are creatures of the 20th century and, after beer, wine, cheese, soda, milk, salty snacks, and bread, they are presently the most popular food item in U.S. grocery stores.

In 1905, Will Keith Kellog first altered the original Corn Flakes recipe to make his product last. He sacrificed the grain’s germ and bran because it caused corn and wheat to go rancid. Thus, only the starchy center was left for consumption and, as a result, most of the vitamins and minerals were eliminated as well. Although their scientists later discovered how to deactivate the specific enzymes causing the problem, Kellogs never restored the more nutritious whole-grain formula.

By the 1960s, many packaged cereals were produced through extrusion machines that cooked any number of ingredients into whatever shapes manufacturers thought average consumers would find appealing. Exceptionally harsh and “nutritionally devastating,” as Warner describes, extruders literally rip food molecules apart and melt the remains under extreme temperatures and pressures in a process called “plasticization.” Vitamins A, B1, C, E, and folate, along with natural antioxidants, fare most dreadfully according to a Texas A&M study published in 2009.

Following extrusion, many cereals are pressure cooked, dried, and toasted at temperatures between 525 and 625 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure resistance to decomposition and an extended shelf life. As such, cereal boxes can line grocery store aisles for many consecutive months prior to purchase. There is a downside, of course: whatever vitamins might have survived extrusion and cooking will tend to degrade as the products sit.

But the processed food industry devised a solution to that problem too—though not a particularly good one, according to Warner. To compensate for nutritional loss, manufacturers add synthetic vitamins, often two or more times the amount printed on the package. In other words, if the label says consumers get 30 percent of their recommended daily allowance of vitamin C, for instance, the processor may have actually added 75 percent.

But maybe the very definition of “vitamin” is flawed. As early as the 1970s, studies have suggested that added synthetic vitamins, as we currently conceive them, might provide little nutritional benefit absent certain phytochemicals that always accompany them in nature—carotenoids, flavonoids, and polyphenols, in particular. Plants use these chemicals to ward off pathogens, and they may benefit us as well by thwarting heart disease and cancer, for example, and even by slowing the aging process. As Warner reports, cereal companies have tried very hard, but so far failed to conjoin this “complex web of nutrients” into their products.

An average consumer might be surprised to know how synthetic vitamins are actually constructed. Most are concocted in Chinese factories few Americans would tolerate as neighbors and few are produced through natural processes. Vitamin D, for instance, requires multiple industrial chemicals to transform sheep grease into the supplement commonly dumped into our milk.

Vitamin B1 starts with coal tar, and vitamin A comes from lemongrass oil and acetone. Vitamin B3 emanates from a waste product in the manufacture of nylon 6,6, a material used to make carpets and vehicle air bags. In fact, the most food-based synthetic vitamins are C, B2, and B12, produced through genetically modified bacteria and the fermentation of corn derivatives.

None of which is to necessarily imply toxicity, of course. But, again, synthetically derived vitamins may be of little nutritional value when split from their natural complements. Even if manufacturers one day discover how to recombine vitamins and phytochemicals, the effort might be all for naught. As Warner recounts, some scientists believe that only the complete biological environments inherent in fruits and vegetables will suffice. And the addition of sugars and nitrates could cause problems too. In other words, if Americans think they can continue to eat poorly and supplement their way to health, they very likely have another thing coming.

So, despite a barrage of patently deceptive advertising to the contrary, breakfast cereals are not good for us. But the converse and more crucial question remains—are processed cereals demonstrably bad? As Warner notes, the industry has long relied on the less than inspired “better than a donut” defense. I suppose that depends on the donut, but, in general terms, certain metabolic facts tend to equate rather than distinguish the two foods.

Our ancestors crushed, milled, and cooked their grains for many centuries before cereal companies assumed control. But the old way’s objective was very different from that of the new. Our forebears labored over bowls and pots in order to gain access to the cereal grain’s well-concealed and highly-prized nutrients. Today, the industry extrudes and “gun puffs” our grains to the extreme point where both digestion and nutrition have become practically irrelevant.

Indeed, much processed food—packaged cereals, most notably—come to us essentially “predigested.” As such, we invite their starches to surge into our bloodstreams, triggering spiked insulin levels and, potentially, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and type II diabetes. In this specific context, the conventional hypothesis that all calories are created equal is plainly flawed.

Perhaps it’s time to adjust our definition of what constitutes a “normal diet”—in particular, to distinguish it from an “average” or “typical diet.” A normal diet for any given species or population is one for which that species or population evolved to consume. The evidence is clear, and I hope compelling: humans did not evolve to receive anything close to seventy percent of their calories from industrially processed foods.



  1. Ron LaDow says:

    ” Our forebears labored over bowls and pots in order to gain access to the cereal grain’s well-concealed and highly-prized nutrients.”

    Evidence for claim lacking.

  2. Melissa says:

    Evidence for the claim is so ubiquitous, it does not need specific support. Overwhelming anthropological evidence comes from excavated prehistoric civilizations, and modern evidence still exists in the practices of primitive and third-world cultures throughout the world.

  3. Andre Gee says:

    “humans did not evolve to receive anything close to seventy percent of their calories from industrially processed foods.”

    Sounds like a naturalistic fallacy to me.
    A lot of things we do and consume are things we didn’t “evolve” to do or consume.

  4. DaveR says:

    Evidence, it matters!

  5. Tim S says:

    The latter half of this article reads a lot like the fear-mongering rhetoric the Skeptic society is meant to debunk. I’d much rather see studies showing eating less-processed foods relates to measurable health benefits than merely implying it by saying all the good things that are destroyed in food production.

    A list of the scary ways vitamins are made does not make for informative journalism, despite the disclaimer that “None of which is to necessarily imply toxicity, of course.” What is it trying to imply, then?

  6. HankQ says:

    I couldn’t agree with Tim S more. This article is full of rhetoric and has cites no science to support the claim that manufactured foods are worse for human consumption. Melanie Warner seems to be cut from the same mold as Michael Pollan and other food writers. Their works are based almost completely on the naturalistic fallacy and have little evidence to support their claims. As Tim said, where are the studies? Where is the evidence? Incredibly disappointing to see this nonsense on this site.

  7. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    Let me preface my comment by pointing out that this is a book review… now, that said, my beef is two-fold: first the reviewer should have been much clearer about what was content of the book and what was his opinion. I’m not sure which is which.
    Second, I want to hear what formal nutritional studies (IOW: science) say about the claims of the book.

  8. Dr.Sidethink says:

    Food in Star Trek and 2001 are clearly synthesized.
    If we see escape to Space as the only reasonable solution to
    the Destruction of civilization due to civil disorder from unjust distribution
    of food , we need to look at “Greenies” as courting a delusional ideology about
    “Spiritual energy in earth foods” and get down to how to manufacture and distribute enough food until TechnoloBOY comes out of the sky and saves us!!

    I think that these are overloloked but they trump environmental destruction
    (serious as it is ) as the primary threat to human civilization as we know it.

    RJ P

  9. Jeff McGuire says:

    evidence and studies:
    first, they are probably in the book;
    second, an understanding of evolution will dispel any objections. Clearly, we did not come to be while interacting with these processed foods;

    • Dr. Sidethink says:

      The logic here is peculiar, at best.

      The fact that we don’t need them does not imply that it is not ok to use them

      An understanding of Evolution does not clear up “any” objections to the premise of the book that they might be harmful

      the main objections to the review in this venue are that the article is a rave in support of a poorly written and rhetorically unscientific book and that Skeptic needs reviews
      having better substance and of better books

      RJ P

      • Jeff McGuire says:

        that is the logic of evolution, the larger view: that we all grew up together, in interaction, us and the rest of the world, including micro-organisms and organic compounds in what we eat. It means you can’t just go changing things up without some real-world effect, some of which are not beneficial.

        • Dr Sdethink says:

          you have stated a private theory held by few.
          It is usually a Newage ” tralala we are all one” viewpoint and practically as bad as Bible Billies .

          “Evolution” at least “Natural selection” claims that random events cause organisms to be born with a reproductive advantage .

          Changes made to local systems by the new organism are not usually “Harmonious”
          However some changes made may indeed be “beneficial”

          • Jeff McGuire says:

            I don’t think I have. Are you inferring something more, something beyond my few words, something specific?

    • Dr.Sidethink says:

      Your statement of “evolution” is clear
      So is mine

      They are different and no inferences are made

      Let the readers decide the matter


      • Jeff McGuire says:

        well, I’m glad it’s all clear to you. Kafkaesque if you ask me. Sure you don’t want to spell it out for the less brilliant of your fans?

        • Dr. Sidethink says:

          I’ll Have to pass

          The statements that either of us made are concise and in Plain English

          the debate about them is the topic for another place
          I would suggest for extensive coverage of evolution

  10. HankQ says:

    Jeff, This is a book review for Skeptic Magazine. I expect any reviewer on this site to critically examine the claims, evidence and studies put forth in the book. That was not done at all in this case. The reviewer simply parroted the claims of the book. This may be acceptable for other sites, but this site it is an awful review.

  11. Jeff McGuire says:

    all right, I’ll withhold further comment until I see the book, which I may never. Specific, quantifiable evidence for anything dietary is hard to get, of course, but the general trends of processed food and increasing health problems such as obesity and diabetes (diabesity) is difficult to deny. I would suggest at this point the onus is on the manufacturers to prove it’s good for you.
    For the record, I have my reservations about skepticism too. Even though it’s too easy an attitude to support, even the minimal work to do so sometimes doesn’t get done.

  12. Hairy Lime says:

    What an awful review. I read the first chapter online and this book is full of unsubstantiated claims and simply tells fear-based stories about how food additives are made. Its discouraging to see Skeptic publish such a positive review of a book by an anti-GMO advocate with out examining the claims in a meaningful manner.

  13. Jimmy says:

    I like fruit loops.

  14. Jenny H says:

    Frankly, I challenge all the nay-sayers to go onto a carbohydrate limited diet for a month — and then comment about the state of their own health. You will be pleasantly surprised as to just how much flavour food has in it when not drowned with sugar!

    This means stick to unprocessed starches and sugars, and only include them in your last meal of the day. Otherwise unprocessed animal fats are desirable (lovely lovely chicken skin, pork crackling (without sugar coating) and a nice strip of fat left on your beef steaks are fine. And preferably use only fresh extracted plant oils.

    I also cannot help but feel that the nay-sayers must work in the processed food industry.

    • Jeff McGuire says:

      does seem that way . . .

    • Dr. Sidethink says:

      Out of 20 replies, NONE are trying to “nay-say” the benefits or lack thereof of processed foods .

      The theme of the replies is that the writing style and depth of the reviewer is not appropriate for this venue. His comments about the book are in only one paragraph and the rest is a(n) hysterical rave about stuff that hasn’t been shown to be directly in the book.

      The implication that anyone asking for proof must be in bed with the accused is beneath comment , but is not inconsistent with the tone of the reply.

      Latero Sidethink Hp.D
      Professor of Slackology
      Bob Dobbs University

      69th Clench of the Stark Fist of Removal
      Reformed Church of the Subgenius

      • Jeff McGuire says:

        I gotta say, looking back at the article, it doesn’t look like a review at all, it just looks like an article about food with the book as it’s jumping off point. So, fair enough, it ain’t much of a critique. But if some of us went off commenting about food, then we’re not out of line with the article.

  15. Dirk Anger says:

    Processesed cheese was slowly killing me, until I learned you take it OUT of the wrappper! What an age to be alive.

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