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Opening Pandora’s Lunchbox: Processed Foods are even Scarier Than You Thought

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Health Issues page and our Food Safety Research Center page.

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 exposé-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 email. Here is what she had to say:

Q.
 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?


A.
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? How would you even go about procuring distilled monoglycerides and BHT, for instance?

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 "processing" these foods go through is minimal and not disfiguring.


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