You’ve heard of pink slime. You know trans fats are cardiovascular atrocities. You’re well aware that store-bought orange juice is essentially a scam. But no matter how great of a processed-food sleuth you are, chances are you’ve never set food inside a processing plant to see how many of these products are actually made.
Writer Melanie Warner, whose new expose-on-the-world-of-processed-foods book, Pandora’s Lunchbox, is out this week, spent the past year and a half doing exactly that. In her quest to explore the murky and convoluted world of soybean oil, milk protein concentrates (a key ingredient in processed cheese), and petroleum-based artificial dyes, she spoke to food scientists, uncovered disturbing regulatory loopholes in food law, and learned just how little we know about many of the food products on supermarket shelves.
After reading Pandora’s Lunchbox, I sent Melanie some burning questions via e-mail.
The term “processed food” is ubiquitous these days. The food industry has attempted to co-opt it by claiming canned beans, baby carrots, and frozen vegetables are “processed foods.” Can you help explain why a Pop-Tart is years away from a “processed food” like hummus?
You have to ask yourself, could I make a Pop-Tart or Hot Pocket at home, with all those same ingredients listed on the package? I don’t know anyone who could do that in their home kitchen. How would you even go about procuring distilled monoglycerides and BHT, for instance? These are highly processed food products loaded up with sugar and sodium, subjected to abusive processing conditions, and assembled with a litany of additives, many of which nobody ever consumed prior to a hundred years ago.
Yet it is possible to make your own black beans at home by soaking and then cooking them. You could even attempt a rudimentary canning operation to preserve them. You can also make hummus by grinding chickpeas with a few other ingredients like lemon juice. The same goes for frozen vegetables and even baby carrots, though homemade baby carrots wouldn’t look as pretty as the ones you buy at the story. The “processing” these foods go through is minimal and not disfiguring. The end result still looks like a food that once grew on a farm.
Many people are put at ease when government agencies and the food industry state that controversial substances are “Generally Recognized as Safe.” Why is this not as comforting as it sounds?
The idea of something “generally recognized as safe” seems so reassuring, but the more you know about the U.S. system of food ingredient regulation the less cause there is for comfort.
For starters, the GRAS process, as it’s known, is one of self-regulation. If a food ingredient company wants to introduce a new additive, they – not the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) – hire some experts or a consulting firm to make the determination about whether this new ingredient is safe. Sometimes you’ll hear that company X has been awarded “GRAS status” for its new ingredient, but the FDA doesn’t award anything. The agency merely has the option to review what companies tell them.
Except when they don’t. In a glaring regulatory loophole that dates back to 1958, the GRAS system also happens to be voluntary. It’s perfectly legal for companies to keep the FDA in the dark about new additives, and consequently there are some 1,000 ingredients the FDA has no knowledge of whatsoever, according to an estimate done by the Pew Research Center.
And the “testing” most additives go through isn’t exactly rigorous. While older additives have been subjected to actual studies, most newer ones haven’t. According to Pew, of the estimated 5,000 additives going directly into our food, less than 50 percent have been the subject of toxicology testing on animals. And hardly any go through testing for the way we actually consume food additives, which is in combination with many ingredients at once.
Although the FDA seeks to reassure us they are keeping a close watch over our food, the job of rigorously regulating thousands of food additives is simply too big for an underfunded agency. BHA, a “probable carcinogen” according to the Department of Health and Human Services, is still allowed in food.
The food industry has often reacted to nutritional concerns by fortifying nutrients into their products. What did you glean from your research about the way these synthetic vitamins are created, and how are they different from the nutrients intrinsically found in foods?
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