How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal - November Book Review November 08 2017

This month’s book delves into some of the history behind today’s processed food industry. It all began with the industrialization that was well established by the mid-19th century and then spread like wildfire after the Civil War. It brought with it an increase in population and urbanization that led half the American population to move to cities by 1900. Food had to be preserved, and production had to be centralized. Some food producers were deceptive and unscrupulous in their food production methods. They had no qualms using chemicals and other new technological shortcuts to gain a competitive edge over honest producers.

By the early 20th century, the U.S. had become the world’s leading industrial nation. New food production processes ran ahead of laws and regulation. In Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, Melanie Warner introduces us to America’s first food industry critic, Harvey Wiley. In 1878 Wiley used a new measuring device to measure various syrups, including honey, molasses, “pure Vermont maple syrup,” and sugar from sorghum, Wiley found them to be made up of a lot of cheap glucose derived from corn. “Imported Italian olive oil” turned out to be Alabama cottonseed oil. Strawberry and raspberry jams were a mix of rotting apples and pulp together with glucose and chemical flavorings derived from coal. Bread was bulked up with sawdust. Consumers were being deceived.

Wiley began a crusade fighting for labeling disclosure and laws governing what could and could not go into industrialized foods. It took Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle in 1906 to incite a public outcry, specifically against the deplorable conditions for workers and animals at the nation’s stockyards. By June of that year President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, the first law governing America’s food. The final version of the bill had been watered down by the political process and lobbying, and gave the government the vague power “to forbid the manufacture of any food that was adulterated, misbranded, or deceptive.” What that actually meant and the chemicals that were and were not allowed didn’t carry much clout with food producers.

One of the first products to be processed for a long shelf life, convenience, and a resulting inferior nutritional profile was cheese. Yes, Kraft cheese, patented in June 1916 as a new product that would be sold in tins and could be “kept indefinitely without spoiling.” This soft, velvety-textured, mild-tasting cheese pitted itself against the inconsistencies in the production of natural cheese. A vigorous ad campaign touting Kraft cheese for its “modern ideas and modern methods applied to cheese making” led processed cheese to gain 40 percent of all cheese consumed by 1930. And thus began the food industry’s marketing and alliance with technology that continues its drumbeat today.  

The first modern precooked, ready-to-eat breakfast cereal originated with John Harvey Kellogg, a Battle Creek doctor and surgeon, to wean Americans off eating animal products for breakfast. Getting to cereal flakes came by accident when John Harvey and his wife, Ella, accidentally left a batch of boiled wheat kernels soaking overnight. The soft, mushy texture found in the morning was put through a roller. Each kernel of wheat stuck to the roller as a flattened flake that could be scraped off and baked on a flat pan. Such was the humble beginning for cereal, a “food” now dominating the center aisles of today’s supermarkets. Changes made to their corn flakes recipe by John Harvey’s younger brother, Will Keith, serves as another early example of producing food for convenience, not nutrition.

In 1933, the book 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs described America’s food supply as a “curious, one-sided experiment with bleaches, preservatives, adulterants, fillers and poisons---and with men, women, and children as test animals in place of rats and guinea pigs.” That one-sided experiment continues to this day with over triple the number of guinea pigs.

Warner’s extensive research into our processed foods produced for me several jaw-dropping moments. One moment was her account of the various steps in the process of breaking down soybeans, including a close-up look at how a soy protein plant outside of Memphis turns soybean flakes into soy protein isolate. This process increases the protein from 35-40 percent in the flake to over 90 percent in the soy protein isolate. The versatile soy is now ready to stand in for, or bulk up, meat. It’s also ready for meat companies to sell bargain-basement-priced products to schools and still come away with a profit.    

Another moment was reading why China prizes the grease embedded in Australian sheep wool, which helps protect the sheep from harsh weather. China transforms the grease from the sheep wool into numerous industrial and consumer products, including  lubricants for machinery and waterproofing for boats; the lanolin goes to lip gloss, moisturizer, and sunscreens. The world’s largest maker of Vitamin D, China’s D. Zhejiang Garden Biochemical, uses the cholesterol in the grease to make the Vitamin D that goes into nearly all the milk Americans consume, including organic varieties. The vitamin also goes into many of our breakfast cereals, breads, bars, margarine, and other dairy products.

Another moment was reading how the chief flavorist at Wild, a rapidly expanding German company, feels no responsibility for creating flavors we come to crave in all the nutrition-free sugary drinks, snack chips and puddings on supermarket shelves. “We’re just making it taste good,” she says, seemingly unconcerned about the global obesity epidemic.  

Warner points out that America’s industrial food system now produces the cheapest, most abundant, most addictive, and most nutritionally inferior food in the world. In 1950 Americans paid 20.6 % of their disposable income for food. Today we pay 9.8%. Some 750 additives were found in the nation’s food supply in 1933. By 1980 more than 2,000 additives were allowed in food. According to research by the Pew Charitable Trusts, eaters today are exposed to 5,000 additives, over half of which are flavorings. The predigested, disassembled food lining supermarket shelves in the form of cereals, soy and corn products is wreaking havoc with our bodies. That’s why Warner believes “it’s important to understand what we’re eating” and “what happens to food before it gets to our plates.”

Read on,



(dedicated local food eater and BBK customer)