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'Pandora's Lunchbox': New Book Reveals How Processed Food Took Over The American Meal

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PANDORAS LUNCHBOX
The cover of the book "Pandora's Lunchbox" features a striking image of sliced American cheese. | Amazon

There's been a lot of information coming out recently about both how we are eating and what we should be eating. Michael Moss, in a great New York Times Magazine piece examining the science of addictive junk food, reveals how certain food companies pretty much ignore health and nutrition in order to get more people to eat foods laden with fat and sugar. His piece came out just days after the TEDxManhattan conference that focused on "Changing The Way We Eat." There, diet suggestions ranged from eating more whole foods to cutting down on waste, just to name a few.

In the same vein, a new book, Pandora's Lunchbox: How Processed Foods Took Over the American Meal, debuts on Feb. 26. Written by Melanie Warner, a former food industry reporter, the book delves into some similar topics as Moss's article (and book). Both Moss and Warner put forth compelling evidence that proves we, as a society, place a premium on convenience over health when it comes to food. And the effects of that prioritization -- whether intentional or not -- can be pretty disastrous.

Pandora's Lunchbox explores the world of processed food, whether it is understanding exactly what American cheese slices are made of, or explaining how soybean oil is showing up in so many different foods. Warner doesn't expect people to suddenly give up processed foods after reading her book -- this isn't quite "The Jungle" here -- and even admits that when she was writing the book, she ate and fed her children more processed food than she typically did. She faced the same problem countless of Americans do: sometimes there simply isn't time to cook a healthy, well-balanced meal. "I don't think it is realistic for people in this day and age to cook every night of the week," Warner told The Huffington Post.

"Everyone has food that they hate to love. Some of that is totally fine," she explains. "Some" is the key word here though -- Warner is far from thrilled with the current state of the food system. But since a massive overhaul of major companies isn't likely, she suggests some more realistic solutions. "In an ideal world, the processed food industry will be much much smaller," she says.

The $1 trillion industry isn't doing everything wrong, though. Minimally-processed foods, such as frozen vegetables, are a step in the right direction, she argues. They can still provide some nutrients and convenience while not offering tons of added chemicals or preservatives.

Warner has cut a few things out of her diet completely after researching her book, though. No more Subway sandwiches, for one. "It is one of these brands that people think 'Oh, it is healthier. Or it is fresh.' But if you look at the ingredients, it's just not." No more fast food french fries either. Or boxed mac n cheese for her kids.

One of the more interesting chapters in Warner's book examined the notion of "healthy processed foods." The chapter touches on the notion of "leanwashing," or the idea that companies make health claims that aren't necessarily truthful. "It is very very confusing to consumers when you see things like sugary cereal that say 'high in fiber' or 'good source of vitamins,'" she says, because the claims may lead people to believe that something is healthy when it really isn't. "It just makes it harder for people to really sort out what is really going on in the grocery store and how to make choices."

If we lived in an ideal society, we would choose the world of highly-regarded food advocate Michael Pollan. It's the kind of world in which you can afford organic food, eat food that your great grandmother would recognize and only eat meat when it is sourced from humane producers. When you read books like Pandora's Lunchbox, you may strive even more for that kind of food system. But until we get there, we can at least do a little bit more to make the food industry a bit less massive than it is today. That's Warner's hope, at least.

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