Book Review: Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal

Ah, this post is long overdue. The last 3 months have been a time of transition, where I’ve been attempting to take control of my health and my career. It’s a process and every day is a lesson to learn from. I’ve been meaning to post this review ever since I finished the book a while back. Most of us are aware that processed foods are not good for us and can even be detrimental to our health. But why exactly? Melanie Warner crafts an easy to read exploration into the history and manufacturing of processed foods.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, even when it completely grossed me out! This book satisfied three major interests of mine: history, advocating healthy eating, and true investigative journalism. Hope you enjoy the review!


In Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, journalist Melanie Warner argues that whole foods are healthier for consumption, concluding that most highly processed foods diminish essential nutrients and pose negative consequences to our health. In the introduction, she states the reason she wrote Pandora’s Lunchbox was to share the core belief that it is vital to understand what we are eating. The book unveils the mysterious methods and technological techniques the food industry uses to manipulate food. Warner weaves historical background, interviews with industry leaders and food scientists, statistics, and research studies, along with comedic anecdotal stories, throughout her narrative.

The urban migration at the turn of the 20th century demanded centralization and new ways to produce and preserve food. Food manufacturers soon learned that by using chemicals and new technologies they could cut cost and achieve a competitive advantage. Before federal laws and regulations, manufacturers were using questionable ingredients and additives such as salicylic acid, sulfuric acid, copper sulfate, potassium nitrate, formaldehyde, borax, and sodium benzoate. The latter is still used today.

In 1902, Harvey Wiley, a chemist at the Bureau of Chemistry, began conducting experiments on volunteers known as the Poison Squad. He concluded that these substances were not fit for human consumption. Later in his career, Wiley became the first commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and passed the Pure Food and Drug Act. For this, he was heavily criticized by the food industry throughout his career.

The start of World War I became a catalyst for intensifying efforts in preserving foods that could sustain under any circumstance. James Kraft found a way to preserve cheese and avoid waste by heating the cheese to homogenize the solids with the fat. His determination and innovation soon changed the model for processed food. As a result, long lasting, convenient, nutritionally inferior products marketed nationwide in attractive packaging soon became the norm.

In the 1990s Kraft Foods scientists replaced a portion of the natural cheese with highly-processed, and cheaper, milk protein concentrate. Profits increased while yielding a more consistent product, and in 2003, due to an FDA rule, Kraft changed the wording on American cheese packages from “Pasteurized Process Cheese Food” to “Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product” without alerting the public as to what they were really consuming.

Cereal, another ubiquitous processed food, had its start at the turn of the century when Dr. John Kellogg was in search of a healthy and convenient option for breakfast. Most cereal brands today are far from this early product. The rise of centralized production and warehousing ushered the need to preserve cereal for several months. Shelf life was prolonged by eliminating the corn germ and bran, which also undermined the benefits of vitamins and fiber.

Today, cereal processing includes gun puffing, extrusion, and steam cooking, which destroys any nutritional value. Manufacturers must add synthetic vitamins and minerals, artificial flavors, colors, and sugar to make their products appealing for consumption. Nutrition labels boast essential vitamins but are not required to distinguish the source of the vitamin or mineral. A 1970 study determined that many kinds of cereals “fatten but do little to prevent malnutrition;” they are essentially “empty calories.” [1] In addition to synthetic nutrients, many processed foods contain chemical preservatives such as BHT, BHA, EDTA, and TBHQ.

Food additives help to improve texture, flavor, look, and longevity. Commercial bread goes through high-speed machines where air and water are forced into the dough. Dough conditioners must be added to the bread for it to survive this brutal processing inside the machines. The additive azodicarbonamide gives bread the look of woven fabric. This chemical is also used in rubber and plastic manufacturing. Through the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) loophole of the 1958 food-additive law, the FDA allows companies to designate their own ingredients as safe. A 1997 rule change made it even easier to get an ingredient added to the GRAS list.

Fat consumption in the United States has significantly increased with ten percent of daily calories from soybean oil, a product that did not exist a hundred years ago. This oil is made edible only by using a chemical solvent, hexane, which is classified as a neurotoxin by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Soybeans also go through bleaching and deodorizing processes. Many processed foods need some form of fat. Soybean oil is cheap, easy to cultivate, and subsidized by the government. Joe Hibbeln, a nutritional neuroscientist for the National Institutes of Health, labeled the increased usage of soybean oil “the single greatest, most rapid dietary change in the history of Homo sapiens.” [2] Soy protein is used as a filler to amplify processed meat products. Heart disease and cancer have been linked to the increase of soy in the food supply. Warner effectively proves that there are many undesirable compromises for easy, convenient packaged foods.

These are just a few topics covered in the book. If you want to learn more or need a little motivation to eat cleaner, then I highly recommend this eye-opening book.

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