Losers in the Food Chain

This is a different year…books are variations on the title “How Big Food Is Trying to Kill You.” We have “Salt Sugar Fat,” my Times colleague Michael Moss’s epic description of the manipulation of processed food to make it even more palatable and addictive tomorrow than it was yesterday…And we have the cleverly titled “Pandora’s Lunchbox,” by Melanie Warner, a freelance (and former Times) reporter, which is so much fun that you might forget how depressing it all is…

For instance: Warner writes of your food being “constructed from powders,” and uses as an example the Subway Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki sandwich. (The name alone feels like it took five geniuses two weeks of brainstorming to devise.) “Of the 105 ingredients,” (you read that right) “55 are dry, dusty substances” whose names sound familiar only to those who read labels, names like disodium guanylate, calcium disodium EDTA, and other things you probably don’t have lying around your kitchen.

Warner reserves much of her astonishment for the amoral food technologists she meets, many of whom decline to eat their own products, which include the much-discussed processed cheese, white bread, soybean oil (extremely complicated, but let’s just say that once you read about it you’ll stop buying it) and breakfast cereal…

History plays a large part in “Pandora’s Lunchbox,” not only that of the development of processed food — again, hilarious as long as you have a sense of irony — but also that of the struggle to contain it. There are heroes here, most notably the late 19th- and early 20th-century crusader Harvey Wiley, who witnessed and fought against processed food. (Oreos were introduced in 1912, Kraft processed cheese in 1915.)

Wiley opposed – mostly unsuccessfully — saccharin (the first product marketed by Monsanto), cigarettes, soda and especially additives. His “Poison Squads” raised awareness — so much that when Upton Sinclair published “The Jungle,” public anger was pronounced enough so that President Theodore Roosevelt was compelled to sign into law the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, also known as the Wiley Act.

This was the foundation of the current Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.), so named in 1930. Warner, like many of us writing about these topics, is alternately angry and sympathetic with its current incarnation: “On the one hand their hands are tied, but there is a lot they could be doing within their authority to keep things that are known to be unsafe, like brominated vegetable oil and BHA, out of food. It’s not very heartening.”

…In a phone interview with Warner, she said that until recently “We didn’t know the true impact of these changes in food on our society and our health. Our diets have changed more in the last century than in the previous 10,000 years, when agriculture was introduced.”

Our corporate foodstuffs manufacturers – you can’t call it packaging food – don’t care if they kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Not if they somehow can keep us alive, albeit unhealthy, for whatever is the current normal lifespan. It matters not that we might live longer without their crap additives – as long as tame physicians continue to applaud steady increases in potential age. Though even that measure seems to be failing.

There are few responsible government agencies. Most are committed to the profiteers. For the present, folks – it’s up to us to take care of our own families and try to steer them into healthy nutrition.

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