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An Interview with Melanie Warner of Pandora's Lunchbox

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As someone who writes regularly about food and who worked as an advertising/regulatory lawyer for one of the world's largest food conglomerates, I didn't think there was a lot that could surprise me about the processed food industry. Then I picked up Melanie Warner's new book, Pandora's Lunchbox, and was agog.

Did you know that the Vitamin D in your milk -- even your organic milk -- likely comes from Australian sheep wool that's been heavily processed in China?  Or that, of the 5,000 additives in our food supply today, and of the additional 3,750 "food contact substances" that might also migrate into our food during processing, only half have been subject to any kind of published toxicology studies?  Or that an early crusader for food safety, Harvey Wiley, had a cadre of volunteers called the "Poison Squad" who would ingest questionable ingredients like borax and sulfuric acid to determine their potential for harm?

Melanie Warner is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including Fortune, CBSnews.com and the New York Times.  I used to follow her CBS blog regularly and have long admired her incisive coverage of the food industry. Melanie was kind enough to let me interview her about Pandora's Lunchbox and, given my interest in kids and food, I was particularly interested in how her findings have affected her as a parent of two boys:

You obviously were well-informed about the processed food industry before researching Pandora's Lunchbox, so I'm wondering: Was there anything you learned about food processing or additives that still totally shocked you?  

I was surprised to encounter so many people within the industry who don't eat the products they help produce. They are cooking much of their own food -- many of them say they love to cook - and shopping at farmer's markets and Whole Foods. They don't buy soda or Gatorade for their kids, and they eat fast food only when they have to, such as when traveling. One food scientist excitedly told me about the huge garden she plants every year; another explained that he makes his own yogurt. It's a strange dichotomy and many of these industry veterans acknowledge the existence of two food systems operating in America -- one where educated people in the upper incomes eat wholesome, fresh food and the one where everyone else consumes a steady stream of unhealthy, highly processed fare. The problem is that, on a collective level, all of these food scientists and company executives are helping to perpetuate this inequality, instead of working to expand access to fresh, real food.

Another surprising finding was just how porous our system of food additive regulation is. It's amazing to realize that, for most new food ingredients, there are no actual FDA requirements for safety testing. And what's worse, there are an estimated 1,000 additives the agency doesn't even know about -- substances that ingredient companies have just started selling. This lack of oversight also leads to a situation where you have a substance like BHA, which is a probable carcinogen according to the Health and Human Services Department, being added to commonly-consumed products like Tang, McDonald's sausages and breakfast steak sandwiches and DiGiorno pepperoni pizza.

You write about your philosophy with respect to processed foods and your own children, concluding that "I'd rather not take the chance -- especially when there are so many alternatives. I'd rather feed them processed foods without chemical preservatives and ingredients that leave tongues Smurf-blue..." Many parents feel the same way, but are challenged by the opportunities in our kids' day to eat chemical-filled junk food outside the home, like the bright blue sports drink and processed chips handed out at the soccer game. How do you handle these instances with your own kids? Do you urge them not to partake?  Or do you just roll with it, on the theory that their overall diet is not highly processed?

I am fortunate to live in the abnormally healthy enclave of Boulder, Colorado, where blue drinks and cupcakes with industrial chemicals are not the norm. When my kids do encounter Flamin' Hot Doritos, soda, fast food and candy, I often just roll with it and let them have fun. But if junk food were to be the norm, greeting us at every soccer game and social occasion as I know is the case for so many parents, I would be figuring out ways to make sure our kids don't overconsume it, teaching them that it's an occasional indulgence, not a normal, acceptable way of eating.

I don't know how old your sons are, but are you planning to talk (or have you talked) to them about some of your findings in the book?  What's the message you want to impart to your kids about processed food and food additives?

Our sons are six and four, and so to them mommy's new book is very boring. It's just a dense jumble of words, no fun pictures. When I speak to them generally about food, I try to point out foods that are healthy and have some fun with asking them questions about where food comes from and how it's grown. On occasions when they ask why they can't have Cheetos, Froot Loops or yogurt in a tube I tell them it's because these things aren't real food. They taste good, but they don't help their bodies grow strong or give them big muscles (that seems to work with little boys). I suspect at some point down the road I'll get a lot more pushback on this and more questions. Maybe then I'll give them the gory details about how some of their favorite processed foods are made and what all the various ingredients are, and then see if they still have an appetite for them.

As you probably know, two food bloggers are asking Kraft to drop two petroleum-based yellow food dyes from its mac-n-cheese product and they've garnered 280,000 petition signatures in support of their effort. So far, however, Kraft seems to be holding firm. So what do you think about this episode? Given the lax oversight at FDA with respect to food additives, what's the best way to bring about change? If this petition effort ultimately fails, do you think there's anything an individual can do besides just choosing natural products?

I think this is a mistake on Kraft's part. The company is probably digging in its heels due to some combination of cost concerns and a fear that they will lose customers were the signature bright orange appearance of their mac & cheese to change even a little. I think Kraft is missing an opportunity to stand out from the crowd and respond to what is clearly a shifting tide in consumer sentiment. These types of concerns are not going away. So far, the company has responded to the petition by saying that they already offer mac & cheese varieties without artificial food colorings. But the other day when I went to my local King Soopers (owned by the Kroger chain), six of eight Kraft varieties contained food dyes -- and this in Boulder where you might think people would appreciate the more natural offerings. Also, the prefabbed mac & cheese so many restaurants serve (Applebee's, IHOP, Bob Evans, etc.) happens to be the original Kraft variety with food dyes.

As for ways to bring about change, we shouldn't underestimate the power we have as customers to force the food companies, and indeed our entire food system, to change through what we choose to buy. Kids should be another big area of focus. Getting elementary and middle school aged kids to understand the concept of healthy food represents one of our best chances for changing our toxic food environment. Kids are naturally curious about nearly everything and food is no exception. Encourage schools to plant a garden so that kids learn all foods originate in the soil, not the shelves at the supermarket. We also need to find ways to teach kids basic cooking skills since many of them are not learning this at home. There quite a lot of tools out there for education, such as these extremely watchable videos encouraging kids to "un-junk" themselves.

One thing about your book that struck me (and with which I wholeheartedly agree) is that you don't expect profit-driven food giants like PepsiCo, Kraft and ConAgra to change their ways. You recognize that they're for-profit companies and are unlikely to be the agents of change some food reformers hope them to be. That said, do you support any kind of legislative curbs on their activities? For example, do you think they should be barred from directly advertising unhealthy foods to children?

I do.This would offer a tremendous leg up for parents, many of whom really can't get through the supermarket or drive by McDonald's without their kids nagging at them. I've seen my kids gravitate toward a bag or box with Sponge Bob or a colorful animal on it, even though they have no idea what's even in it. They don't care; they just want it. There was an amazing document written in 2010 by a joint committee of officials and scientists from the FTC, FDA, USDA and CDC. It set strict nutrition guidelines for what could be marketed to kids. The rules were so well written that they would have eliminated most of what's geared towards kids today, which is, by and large, sugary, nutritionally devoid junk. Naturally, the food industry howled in protest and the guidelines, which were voluntary by the way, quietly disappeared.

Your book ends on a hopeful note, advocating a return to simple home cooking, but you also recognize that many Americans lack even basic cooking skills. It seems unlikely that our cash-strapped, standardized-testing-focused public schools can assume this role, and there aren't nearly enough non-profits like Cooking Matters to reach the people who need them. So how do we bring Americans back into the kitchen?

We need to start thinking about how to allocate resources to the important job of changing the way America eats, especially our kids. Perhaps food and cooking education are something a soda tax could fund, much in the way tobacco taxes have financed effective anti-smoking ad campaigns. Soda taxes are inevitable; it's just a question of when. They make sense because they would discourage consumption of what is arguably the worst item in our diets, something linked to obesity and diabetes. Moreover, they send a cultural message about things that should be consumed carefully.

I'm not a gourmet cook, nor am I even a foodie. But I find the act of preparing my own food -- even if it's just simple meals like a grilled chicken salad or spaghetti and meatballs -- to be enormously rewarding, both in terms of our family's physical and emotional well-being. So many subtle yet deep family bonds are forged around the dinner table.

Is there anything else you'd like to share with readers about processed food?

It's important not to get too strident about all this. Processed food can have its role in our lives and there's nothing wrong with some junk food indulgences. Food is meant to be enjoyed. My hope is that we move toward a place where more and more Americans start to grasp the profound pleasures of eating fresh, healthy food.

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