Pandora’s Lunchbox is an in-depth look at the way processed foods have wormed their way into (for most of us) almost everything we put into our mouths. If it comes out of a package, it probably has an ingredient that has been, in some way, modified in a factory somewhere in the world. This book tells the story of some of those ingredients and some of those foods.
Warner spent two years covering the food industry for the New York Times and she takes an active role in the book, traveling to food shows, interviewing researchers, and writing about the foods she eats and the experiments she does on processed food. For several years she kept a collection of foods well past their expiration date, both in her pantry and in her refrigerator, occasionally opening a package and checking on the food’s slow deterioration. As may be guessed, even several years later most of the foods were still edible with almost no sign of age, but frozen chicken nuggets, which had been assembled like plywood in a factory, completely liquified within a few months.
The book’s chapters focus on particular foods, like breakfast cereals or cheese, but certain themes occur throughout the book. One issue Warner is concerned with is vitamins. Processed foods are heavily manipulated in the factory: they are heated, sometimes within a fraction of a second, to temperatures above 600 degrees; they are literally exploded with steam; they are crushed and mixed under tremendous pressure. All of this manipulating trashes the natural vitamins in the foods, so artificially-derived vitamins are put back into the food. But are those vitamins as effective as naturally occurring vitamins? Good question–the answer from twenty years ago is yes, of course, but the much more recent answer is, maybe not. The chemistry and biology of food and nutrition is much more complicated than we used to think it was, and artificially-derived vitamins don’t seem to be quite as good as vitamins that come straight from food in the first place. This points to another theme in the book: our ideas and knowledge about what makes “good” food are constantly changing, and the answers of today aren’t the same as the answers of yesterday.
Warner talks with food researchers who work for food companies throughout the book. There are no voices here from food reformers, and that isn’t the point of the book–this isn’t a Michael Pollan-style “we need to change” kind of book, but a book that focuses on how things are today (until the last chapter, which I’ll talk about below). Warner doesn’t just ask the researchers about the food, she also asks them about themselves, about why they became food researchers and what their relationship is to food. Their answers are quite illuminating, and three sets of ideas come through from almost everyone.
First, they like their jobs. Some of them are science geeks, some are food geeks, but they like the idea of manipulating one thing to make something else (and make no mistake about it, these people are not akin to chefs, they are, in fact, hard-core chemistry people, manipulating foods down to the molecular level on machines that cost millions of dollars).
Second, they feel that they’re doing something beneficial. They’re creating foods that are cheaper than the “real” equivalent and healthier than previous versions of the same processed food (i.e. they’re making a fake version of bacon that has more vitamins or more protein than previous versions of fake bacon). Of course, this implies that there was something wrong with the old version of the processed food, and while they never specifically admit it, they live in a world (that of technology) where the new version of X is always better than the old. They never seem to realize that this worldview also implies that the new version of X is also deficient.
Third, and this is where things get interesting, when Warner asks the researchers what they eat at home, they never mention processed foods. Most of them like to cook, and they often cook from scratch. This is not particularly unusual, especially for this group of people, who are highly educated with salaries that probably start near $100,000 per year and can climb well above that. But Warner often focuses on the fundamental disconnect that exists between their jobs (making processed foods) and their personal lives, where they eat foods from scratch. Software designers have a practice called “eating your own dog food,” where they use, exclusively for the task it’s intended, whatever software they’re developing just as soon as it can feasibly be used. In this way they learn, and fix, the problems with the software quickly. These people don’t seem to eat their own dog food. If they did, would the processed foods they make be different? Would they be healthier?
The last chapter of the book is a “where do we go from here?” kind of chapter. In some ways, that question is completely pointless. After reading through the previous 200 pages, which are full of jaw-dropping examples of the awful stuff that happens to processed food, by the time the average reader gets to this chapter he or she will have decided long before to avoid processed foods and stick to making everything from scratch, as much as possible.
This book is highly recommended.