Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Pandora's Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took over the American Meal

Pandora's Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took over the American Meal

4.5 12
by Melanie Warner, Ann Marie Lee (Narrated by)

See All Formats & Editions

If a piece of individually wrapped cheese retains its shape, color, and texture for years, what does it say about the food we eat and feed our children? Former New York Times reporter and mother Melanie Warner decided to explore that question when she observed the phenomenon of the indestructible cheese. She began an investigative journey that took her to


If a piece of individually wrapped cheese retains its shape, color, and texture for years, what does it say about the food we eat and feed our children? Former New York Times reporter and mother Melanie Warner decided to explore that question when she observed the phenomenon of the indestructible cheese. She began an investigative journey that took her to research labs, food science departments, and factories around the country. What she discovered provides a rare, eye-opening—and sometimes disturbing—account of what we're really eating. Warner looks at how decades of food science have resulted in the cheapest, most abundant, most addictive, and most nutritionally devastating food in the world, and she uncovers startling evidence about the profound health implications of the packaged and fast foods that we eat on a daily basis.

From breakfast cereal to chicken subs to nutrition bars, processed foods account for roughly seventy percent of our nation's calories. Despite the growing presence of farmers' markets and organic produce, strange food additives are nearly impossible to avoid. Combining meticulous research, vivid writing, and cultural analysis, Warner blows the lid off the largely undocumented—and lightly regulated—world of chemically treated and processed foods and lays bare the potential price we may pay for consuming even so-called healthy foods.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Audio
This eye-opening expose of the food industry in America was conceived after Warner, while working as a journalist for The New York Times, made a trip to the supermarket and purchased a rather unhealthy amount of packaged foods in an attempt to see what would happen to them once all the expiry dates came and went. The results, as she states, were rather anti-climactic as she discovered that the foods were pretty much the same. But this left her asking one question: What do expiry dates really mean, and is “food” really food anymore? Narrated by Ann Marie Lee, this absolutely fascinating—and rather infuriating—look at what society is really eating is a must for any responsible adult. Lee’s delivery is simple and understated. She lets the shocking discoveries speak for themselves and her tone mirrors that of the text: she sounds like a concerned citizen who simply wants to know why we are being misled about what we eat. A Scribner hardcover. (Apr.)
Publishers Weekly
Warner takes readers on an investigative journey into the history, current practices, and future trends concerning food processing and additives. We meet characters like Harvey Wiley, the "founder of modern food regulation," whose legal briefs helped ban dangerous additives like borax and formaldehyde in the United States, and James Lewis Kraft, whose 1914 processing technique created cheese that could be "kept indefinitely without spoiling." She covers the history of soy, from its early uses as fertilizer and livestock feed to the development of soybean oil for frying food, this despite containing toxic aldehydes that have been linked to serious medical conditions. Warner visits a soy protein plant, describing the processes through which we get our faux meats, before we reach her own refrigerator where she discovers her supermarket guacamole contains amigum-a gelling agent used in cosmetics-which a food scientist theorized was made with an avocado facial mask recipe. Other topics include the origins and effects of synthesized vitamins, shortcomings of the FDA, the manufacturing of artificial flavors, and new innovations in "healthy processed foods." Warner's thought-provoking study does an excellent job presenting the facts without sensationalizing, and offering common sense solutions to those seeking to make better food choices.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Wall Street Journal
"A gripping exposé."
Dean Ornish
"Pandora's Lunchbox is a brilliant and fascinating exploration of how our food gets processed, its powerful effects on our health, and what we can do about it. Highly recommended!"
David L. Katz
"Melanie Warner is a journalist of keen skill, and in Pandora's Lunchbox she pries the lid off well-packaged secrets about how our so-called food is made. The resulting bounty of insights and revelations is almost overwhelming. This is a book of stunning, at times shocking truths, told in a crisp, compelling narrative. Of profound importance for everyone who eats."
Marion Nestle
“In Pandora’s Lunchbox, Melanie Warner has produced an engaging account of how today’s ‘food processing industrial complex’ replaced real foods with the inventions of food science. Her history of how this happened and who benefits from these inventions should be enough to inspire everyone to get back into the kitchen and start cooking.”
Robert Kenner
“Warner pulls back the curtain to reveal the industry secrets of how our most basic staples are being transformed into processed foodstuffs to boost profits. We get an (un)healthy dose of hexane-extraction, gun puffing and roast chicken type flavor, but like the best investigative journalists, she uses the personal stories of food scientists, innovators, and crusaders not to mention her own home experiments, to show why you’ll want to think twice before hitting the drive-thru or reaching for that ‘health bar.’”
From the Publisher
"Warner's thought-provoking study does an excellent job presenting the facts without sensationalizing, and offering common sense solutions to those seeking to make better food choices." ---Publishers Weekly
Kirkus Reviews
The story of what happens to processed foods before they reach our plate. What is lost from, or added to, factory-produced food in the quest for uniformity, flavor, cohesiveness, moistness and the ability to withstand temperature extremes? To answer this question, journalist Warner examined Kraft prepared-cheese product, Subway's sandwich bread, breakfast cereals, soybean oil, chicken tenders and other foods. The author clearly explains the procedures and chemicals used to keep mass-produced food consistent and unspoiled, and she identifies the paradox of the food-processing industry: "that nutrition and convenience are sometimes deeply at odds with one another." The problem, she writes, with the "wholesale remaking of the American meal is that our human biology is ill-equipped to handle it." Our bodies metabolize food much as they did in the Stone Age, long before the plethora of new ingredients that make meal preparation easier. While we assume the FDA regulates the estimated 5,000 food additives used in processed foods, the food industry is innovating so fast, it is hard to keep up. Warner outlines the loopholes and gaps in a regulatory system in which only several hundred additives are researched and controlled. Americans also now get more synthetic nutrients in their diets than naturally occurring ones. These vitamins may not be as beneficial since they lack the suite of natural compounds found in whole foods. Warner includes chapters on soy and the changing world of fats, meat extenders, flavorings, and early pioneers in food testing and regulation. Some of the chapters meander a bit--e.g., an excellent chapter on regulating food additives ventures off into enzyme use in baking. Warner's take-home message is to seek out the least-processed of the processed foods. A well-researched, nonpreachy, worthwhile read.

Product Details

Tantor Media, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
Unabridged CD
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 5.30(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt


A NUMBER OF YEARS AGO, I went to the supermarket and bought an overflowing armful of cereal boxes and cookie packages. I’d started writing about the food industry for the New York Times not long before, and I’d decided to test whether those expiration dates printed on packages actually meant anything. I’d always wondered what happened to food after the expiration dates passed. Would the cookies turn green or taste like old shoes? Would bugs crawl out of the cereal? I tucked the boxes and crinkly bags away in my kitchen for nearly a year. The dates printed on the packages came and went, and when I opened them, the results were fairly unremarkable: my cereal and cookies looked and tasted perfectly normal, almost as if I’d just bought them.

I started wondering how long other foods would last. My experiment expanded—frozen dinners, kids’ lunches, loaves of bread, processed cheese, hot dogs, pudding, and Pop-Tarts. I brought home samples of fast-food burgers, fries, chicken sandwiches, and chicken nuggets. At the time I was working from home, and I had to keep everything out of reach of our two young sons, who were never able to understand why they couldn’t eat just one Oreo or have a taste of a Pop-Tart.

I worried that my work area might succumb to some sort of awful infestation. I pictured fruit flies or those tiny worms that get into the forgotten bag of flour in the back corner of the top cabinet. But none of this happened. Much of my collected food stubbornly refused to decay, even after as many as six years—far beyond expiration dates.

I wondered what had happened to this food to make it so eternal, so unappealing to the mold and bacteria that normally feast on ignored leftovers and baked goods. It seemed to me that the dates printed on the package had little to do with true “expiration.” What did those dates actually mean? How was it possible that foods that seemed perfectly edible could be immune to natural processes of decomposition? What were we actually feeding our kids?

Around our house, my experiments were regarded as little more than mildly amusing, sort of weird, and definitely gross. My food collection was a funny little hobby. Until the guacamole incident.

On a Fourth of July trip out of town in 2011, my husband had returned from the grocery store with a tub of “fresh guacamole.” “They made an announcement over the loudspeaker that they had just made it over at the deli, so I went and got some,” he said proudly.

The container had a haphazardly applied sticker on it, indicating that it very well could have been “made fresh” by one of the store’s white-coated deli workers. But there was something unusual about the ingredients: Hass avocados, salt, ascorbic acid, citric acid, xanthan gum, amigum, text-instant, tomatoes, yellow onion, jalapeño, cilantro.

I was knee-deep in research on food additives, but I’d never heard of amigum or text-instant. I went to the store and bought another tub, tucking it into our fridge at home and figuring I’d look into those strange ingredients later. Mostly I forgot about it. Then, nine months later, my mom, who lives with us in Boulder, Colorado, announced she’d tried some of the guacamole. We’d just had a birthday party for one of our boys, and I’d bought some dips from Whole Foods. I hoped that was what she was referring to, but I was pretty sure all of it was gone.

My mom had tried the other guacamole, the Fourth of July stuff, of course. “It was a little spicy,” she declared.

My food museum was nauseating, but it had never occurred to me that it could actually sicken anyone. I was concerned because, as an older person, my mom has a higher risk of contracting a life-threatening food-borne illness. Mom assured me everything would be fine; she is nothing if not an unrelenting optimist. Amazingly, though, she was right. Not even an intestinal rumbling. She’d only tried a little, thank God.

Some people probably would have looked at that tub of green goop and not eaten any of it. It was brown around the edges and didn’t look particularly fresh. But others might have done exactly what my mom did, and mistaken it for something edible. Even homemade guacamole tends to darken after a few days, and what my mom ate had none of the red flags that help guide us in our decisions about whether or not to consume something. There was no mold and no bad smell.

Like so much of the food we eat today, this immortal guacamole was not what it seemed. It had, in fact, been prepared—or assembled—by those deli workers, but not according to any recipe you’d use at home. It didn’t look like a processed food, but that’s exactly what it was. Along with the usual avocados, tomatoes, and onions, this guacamole had corn. Or corn manipulated beyond recognition so that it had been transformed into preservatives you can’t taste, smell, or see. And then there was that “text-instant,” as well as “amigum”—an ingredient that, I later learned, was even more bizarre than I could have imagined.

And that is the story of so much of our food, it turns out. Although my mother instilled in me a healthy skepticism of processed foods growing up, allowing me very limited access to what she called “gooped-up” food, I had no idea just how tremendously technical our food production had become until my food experiments impelled me to take a closer look. What started as an earnest attempt to understand the true meaning of labeling on the packages of the foods so many of us eat became a larger journey that brought me inside the curious, intricate world of food science and technology, a place where food isn’t so much cooked as disassembled and reassembled. Over the last century, such complex modes of production have ushered in a new type of eating, what we call processed food.

Considering our vast and bewildering cornucopia of modern food choices, it’s easy to forget that most of the items lining the inner aisles of the supermarket and the substances offered on fast-food menu boards simply didn’t exist a century ago. The avalanche of prefabbed, precooked, often portable food into every corner of American society represents the most dramatic nutritional shift in human history. If we really are what we eat, then Americans are a different dietary species from what we were at the turn of the twentieth century. As a population, we ingest double the amount of added fats, half the fiber, 60 percent more added sugars, three and a half times more sodium, and infinitely greater quantities of corn and soybean ingredients than we did in 1909.

The trouble with this wholesale remaking of the American meal is that our human biology is ill equipped to handle it. The way our bodies metabolize food is stuck somewhere in the Stone Age, long before the age of Cheez Whiz, Frosted Flakes, and Classic Chick’N Crisp fried in vegetable oil. Our many novel and high-tech manipulations of food destroy much of its essential geography, resulting in all sorts of unintended consequences. When we start taking food apart and industrially processing it, it often stops making biological sense.

Processed food is even more ubiquitous than we think it is, in part because many products are designed to look as if they’re not really processed at all. Subway’s “fresh” sandwiches and the center aisles at Whole Foods, for instance, can both be quite perplexing. What are boxes of General Mills’s Cascadian Farm’s Fruitful O’s and Cinnamon Crunch, if not Froot Loops and Cinnamon Toast Crunch by other names? Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey once acknowledged that some of what his stores sell is a “bunch of junk.” And Subway’s bread is not much more fresh and its meat no more whole than the bags of chips sitting up at the register. In total, some 70 percent of our calories come from this sort of (ultra) processed food. As an industry, this amounts to $850 million a year.

And yet many foods that some might call processed in fact are not. At one point during my research, I attended an industry conference where the keynote discussion sought to tackle the merits of food processing. The example most often cited was pasteurized milk. Thank goodness for food scientists, the argument went, who save Americans from countless outbreaks of campylobacter and E. coli. Yes, thank goodness, but pasteurized milk, let’s be clear, is not a processed food. Nor are frozen peas, canned beans, washed and boxed spinach, bags of baby carrots, packages of aged cheese, or boxes of raw, frozen ground beef shaped into hamburgers.

At one point in time these products undoubtedly would have been heralded as newfangled creations. But today they barely register on the processing continuum and are not included in that 70 percent figure, which comes from a rigorous analysis done by the Brazilian nutrition scientist Carlos Monteiro. As a general rule—in a universe of tens of thousands of foods, there are always exceptions—a processed food is something that could not be made, with the same ingredients, in a home kitchen. Your home kitchen.

I’ve written this book with the core belief that it’s important to understand what we’re eating. Some people won’t want to know and would rather just keep eating all their favorite foods in peace, and this book isn’t for them. But for those who believe in the virtues of a health-promoting diet for themselves and their families, few things are more important to understand than what happens to our food before it gets to our plates—whether it’s arrived from the farm reasonably intact or has had a long, multibranched journey through the nutritionally devastating food-processing industrial complex.

The aging guacamole notwithstanding, my mom, who read food labels with a discriminating eye long before it was fashionable, still does her best to avoid “gooped-up” food. She cooks most of what she eats and continues to survey ingredients (although apparently not if the food is already in the fridge). But her diet isn’t one of deprivation. She eats meat and dairy and plenty of butter. She’s never been lactose-free, sugar-free, caffeine-free, or fat-free. Nor does she have any plans to go gluten-free: the woman eats more bread than anyone. The only organizing principle of her diet is that she predominantly consumes things she would have recognized as food growing up in the thirties in Nova Scotia. She doesn’t eat fast food; there was none back then. And she’s never owned a microwave; they weren’t available until the seventies.

It seems to have worked well for her. In her early eighties, she’s in near-perfect health, with no chronic conditions and no prescriptions to fill, something that, if you ask her, she will attribute in no small part to what she eats. “What you put into your body matters, Melanie,” she told me more than once while I was in college, eating Pop-Tarts and pizza for dinner. “Just because it’s edible doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”

As hard as it was to acknowledge at the time, she was on to something.

Meet the Author

Melanie Warner is a freelance writer who has covered the food industry as a staff writer for the New York Times.

Ann Marie Lee has worked extensively as an actress in the theater, as well as on television and film. She has recorded numerous audiobooks and has received several AudioFile Earphones Awards and a Publishers Weekly Listen-Up Award.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Pandora's Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Just get the book and read it.This is good advise for EVERYONE, as this book is amazing beyond description. It is so comprehensive with information  that has needed to be discovered and uncovered, and believe me, Melanie Warner's work on this book is nothing short of amazing. Thank you to an excellent investigative writer.
BeckiV More than 1 year ago
Food (and many non-food) manufactures have added to and manipulated our food to increase shelf life. This processing removes nutrition,color, and flavor which is added back in with various non-food chemicals. This book was not an attack on the food processing business as much as a documentation of the history and demonstration of the prevalence. It reveals how "healthy" foods are created by manufacturers and aren't healthy at all. After reading this book, I've become a more educated consumer and try to use real, locally grown/raised food and to stay away for most items that come in a box, can, or wrapper.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Seemed to an indept and fair analysis of the process food industry, i had no idea they could mess with our food so much,Well written, not too dificult to read, very entertaining if this topic interests you - and ir should, Kirk
DavidWard More than 1 year ago
If you've ever wonder what chemicals are in the processed food you purchase in the grocery store or restaurant, then this is the book for you. The author not only explains what the chemicals are, but also reveals why they are in the food and what these chemicals do to the food. This is an excellent book for anyone concerned about healthy eating, over weight, obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
drakevaughn More than 1 year ago
As a zombie apocalypse enthusiast, I always wondered how long processed food would remain edible. The answer is shocking – far longer than I would’ve ever anticipated. Pandora’s Lunchbox begins with the results of Warner’s home experiment where she left processed food exposed, sometimes for years, and saw little change in the products. She expands off this, digging into the procedures and chemical processes that go into modern food production. She likewise exposes how much of the nutritional value in processed foods comes from added chemicals instead of anything natural. Her reporting is solid, detailing the fascinating science behind food processing and the questionable health benefits. Definitely worth a read for anyone interested in knowing what goes into the food we eat.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An eyeopening exploration of processed foods and how they are disassembled and reassembled.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago