Dangers of (Gluten Free) Processed Foods with Melanie Warner: GFS Podcast 054
The following points were discussed in during the podcast:
00:20 — Introducing freelance journalist and author, Melanie Warner to discuss behind the scenes information on processed food.
01:23 — How Melanie’s investigation of the food industry led to her write about the untold story of technological food production.
05:18 — What Melanie’s findings means for the gluten-free community, and identifying the biggest offenders.
08:19 — A good way to determine if a food is processed or not and why manufacturers “need” to add so many ingredients.
11:26 — The reason why using more ingredients is cheaper.
12:52 — Melanie is asked to chime in on Jennifer’s favorite topic—gluten-free food products, and Melanie calls out the 2 worst ingredients in processed foods.
15:04 — How big food companies are cashing in on the gluten-free craze.
16:13 — Jennifer’s xantham gum article was inspired by Melanie’s book, Melanie explains how xantham gum is a good “marker.”
18:06 — The deceiving power of processed ingredients—white, uniform powders made to look appetizing and marketable.
19:32 — A Subway sandwich has how many ingredients in it?? But Whole Foods is better, right? Right?
21:21 — What does it mean when a food is labeled as “fortified?”
23:00 — How processed ingredients from China has found their way to our breakfast table, and what the FDA is doing about it.
25:20 — The most shocking “imitation food” experiences Melanie faced at a conference.
27:51 — Why ingredient companies are engineering food, and the hidden cost of eating more and more processed food products.
29:39 — Getting a copy of Melanie’s book, staying in touch with her and closing comments.
Then take a moment and leave a review on iTunes sharing what you’ve learned and why others would benefit from subscribing as well!
Jennifer: Welcome back to the Gluten Free School Podcast. I’m your host, Jennifer Fugo. And today, we are going to talk about food and the state of food.
We’ll talk a little bit about some gluten-free food and some additives and things like that, but why a lot of the food in the food that we buy and eat is not actually “real” food and what is behind a lot of these very processed, chemically based junk that’s showing up in the food that maybe some of us eat because since it’s in gluten-free products, but it’s also in a lot of the food that our family members eat who might not be gluten-free. So this is really good eye-opening information, everybody.
My guest today is Melanie Warner. She’s a freelance journalist who writes about the food industry. Her book on processed food, which is called Pandora’s Lunchbox was published by Scribner in February of 2013.
She’s worked as a reporter for the New York Times, a senior writer at Fortune Magazine and a blogger for CBSNews.com. Melanie lives in a relatively processed food-free haven of Boulder, Colorado.
Melanie, welcome to the podcast.
Melanie: Thank you, Jennifer.
Jennifer: Now, I want to give everybody a little bit of background on how you ended up here because obviously, you’re not an advocate in the gluten-free world, but I think your message is incredibly important.
So about a year ago, it was probably around the time your book actually was published, I was staying with a friend of mine in New York and she had your book and began reading to me about how horrifying your experience was going to a tradeshow and what a lot of these ingredients that I have never heard of in food, what they actually were. One of which was xanthan gum, which we can touch on later, but your message has stayed with me.
That’s why I wanted to invite you on, to share with everybody and make them a little bit wiser the next time they pick up a food product (so anything packaged), they might think twice.
So why don’t you tell us a little bit about how you got interested in this subject and why you think it’s so important for us to know about.
Melanie: Yeah, sure. Well, I started writing about the food industry about a decade ago. I came to it as a business journalist. I have been covering all sorts of different types of – I was in Silicon Valley for a while writing about technology and suddenly, I was writing about the food industry. It was something that I was always fascinated by, but never really looked into very much.
So I started talking to all these people called ‘food scientists’ and I had never thought about this world of food science and that there were people whose job it was and take apart food and engineer it back together. And they were fascinating to talk to.
They had all kinds of interesting backgrounds and it was extremely interesting the way they approached food. It was very, very different from the way I thought about food and the way most people I think thought about food.
And I started going to these tradeshows like the one that I talk about in the book. This particular one, it’s held every year, it’s one of the food industry’s largest. It’s called IFT, Institute of Food Technologists. I felt like I was an alien coming into this world where at the time, there weren’t very many outsiders that went there. There weren’t very many journalists that go there outside of maybe trade journalists.
People would talk in a language that was completely foreign to me talking about food. I’d go up to, they had all these booths there of all these ingredients company that were selling all of these ingredients that are on the sides of food packages when you pick them up and you see these large ingredients list. These are a lot of the companies selling these things.
I’d go up and talk to them about their ingredients and I’d say, “What really is this?” and they’d say, “Well, this is for a meat application” or, “This is for a cheese application” as if dinner was some sort of software program that was to be coded.
Jennifer: Oh, my gosh.
Melanie: They didn’t think anything strange about that. They didn’t think anything strange that they would take things like milk – one guy told me, “What I do is I build milk backwards.” It just kind of blew my mind. I had no idea what he was even talking about. It took me like half an hour for him to explain what it was that he did and what his ingredient was.
None of this was strange to any of the people that went there. It just really hit me right away the first time that I went to that tradeshow that something deeply technological had happen to our food system and our way of producing food.
And this had been kind of gradual really starting about a hundred years ago and then accelerating the last 40 or 50 years. I found it incredibly fascinating and it was just part of the story that – it was when I started thinking about this idea for the book. I didn’t start working on it until later.
I started thinking about it then and realized that there was really a story of how our food comes together in a way that’s very problematic for nutrition and for our health. It was a story that wasn’t really known or wasn’t really understood and that’s why I wanted to write my book.
Jennifer: And for gluten-free folks, I think we oftentimes forget that what is in a bag of bread or crackers that are in a bag or a box of some sort, anything that’s really packaged like that, we have to remember that this is all processed food in a sense. It was made by someone else.
I think what’s most horrifying to me just listening to your introduction there was that this is like food science and there are food technologists and you’re saying a ‘meat application’. That’s not real cooking.
Jennifer: That’s not right.
Melanie: Yeah, it’s taking food apart at a molecular level, breaking it down to some of its core pieces to the point which it no longer represents or no longer resembles food. And then trying to build it all back together.
You can really look at – one indication of this is how many ingredients are in a product. The more ingredients, the more highly processed it is. The more things that have come around from different labs and different factories, the more food scientists that had been involved in this product. That’s one way in which you can tell the nature of the food and how highly processed it is.
Jennifer: I think we’re eating probably a lot more processed food than we realize. Would you say yes from your research?
Melanie: I think so. Unless you’re really, really attuned to it and really aware of it, it tends to creep into our diets a lot more than I think people realize.
And one of the ways, I think, is in restaurants. It’s very easy to look at a package in a supermarket and try to understand what’s in it. The ingredients are printed right there. But when you eat out at restaurants, chain restaurants, whether it’s Subway or Applebee’s or the fast food restaurants, a lot of times people don’t go through the trouble of looking at the ingredients because they’re not right there. You have to go on the website. Sometimes, you have to click a few times. And many chain restaurants actually don’t publish their ingredient list at all, which I think is a big omission and I would really like to see that change.
One of them I just mentioned, Applebee’s, for instance, doesn’t publish their ingredients list.
Jennifer: Have you been able to uncover it all what is exactly in some of their food?
Melanie: Not specifically. But I do know that a lot of those chain restaurants like those casual restaurants, you might think that you have people back there cooking food, but a lot of it comes pre-made.
So it’s coming from a centralized factory where it’s a highly processed sauce or the meat is highly processed (sometimes it comes in bags) and then people in the kitchen are just taking it out of the bags. It’s all premixed there together and they’re just grilling that meat or heating it up or whatever it is.
So they’re not actually mixing all the ingredients together like they would at a more traditional or maybe high-end restaurant.
Jennifer: Oh, my! Sounds delicious, so not. And so, I know what processed is (at least I think I know what processed food is), but from your research, what is processed food and how can the listeners identify it and does it really matter if they’re eating it or maybe their families are eating it?
Melanie: That’s a good question because there’s so many food choices out there, just too many. I think people just get overwhelmed both at restaurants and at the supermarket.
I like to think of processed food – it’s a kind of working definition. It doesn’t apply to 100% of everything. But my definition is if it’s something that you can’t make at home in your home kitchen (just theoretically, not that you’re necessarily going to do it), if you can’t make it at home in your home kitchen with those same ingredients that are listed on a website or package, then that’s a processed food.
So you can look at something like a toaster strudel and you look at the long list of ingredients in that, there’s no way you could make that at home. You could make sort of a replica of it using less additives, but it’s not the same thing. If you can’t make it with all those different things that are listed on the package, you can be pretty sure it’s processed food.
Jennifer: And why is it that they even add that many ingredients to food? You see a loaf of bread and it’s got 40 ingredients. I mean, I don’t know how to make bread, I’ll be entirely honest with you because I’m not a baker. But even gluten-free bread, there’s a laundry list of ingredients on that as well. Why is that we need so many ingredients now, in foods that shouldn’t really be that complicated.
Melanie: You can make bread at home with three or four ingredients. You can get a little bit fancy and do six or seven ingredients. But really, when you make bread at home, you’re not going to use more ingredients than that. Whereas, you’re right, you pick up bread at the supermarket and it’s got this whole long laundry list.
Part of it is for what the industry call ‘shelf life’. They want the products to last as long as possible. For bread, it doesn’t have a long shelf life, but they try and get it to like two weeks. But a lot of other products at the supermarket (breakfast cereals, frozen foods), those go months and months and months before they’re consumed sometimes relative to the factory to even the amount of time it spends in a warehouse. So you need it for that.
And then you need it for – like some of the bread ingredients are in there because bread manufacturers feel that a lot of their customers like bread that’s super fluffy. So you have that, sometimes they call it a ‘fine crumb’ structure and they want bread to have that certain mouth feel, which is another food science term. So they put aerating products in to give it that extra squishiness and puffiness in bread.
And then in the frozen aisle, you get all kinds of modified starches that help these frozen foods stay palatable if they’re being frozen for months and months and months. They need to make sure they don’t dry out.
So there’s all kinds of reasons. Because this food is not being consumed right away like you would at home, you need to add in all sorts of things. And then it’s also for cheapness too. it helps make food a lot more cheaper.
Jennifer: How is it that by adding 40 ingredients, it’s cheaper than having five?
Melanie: Yeah, I know. It’s ironic, right? Sometimes, the simpler food – and certainly, this is true. Sometimes, the least processed food can be more expensive – not always, but sometimes that’s the case.
It’s a fact that the industry has revolved around using these ingredients. So it’s all these corn-based ingredients, soy-based ingredients or chemically based ingredients. These things have become commodities. Everyone uses them. They’re produced in large, large, large volumes both the starting ingredients and then the derivatives that food scientists make into these ingredients that actually go into the food.
So when you’re producing, it’s just supply and demand. When you’re producing a lot of these things and everyone is using them, it just drives down the cost and these things have been used for decades.
I see promising signs that the food processing industry is slowly getting the message and they’re slowly shifting to using less ingredients. Tyson has a whole line of their breaded chicken products that they call Simple or Simply and they cut way down on the number of additives that are in them.
So as the industry starts to move towards that, hopefully, the way that they’re manufacturing these foods are able to manufacture them a lot less processed, but also, at the same price point that people expect.
Jennifer: And obviously, everybody, we mentioned bread and the Tyson products. And actually, those I’m pretty sure (at least the bread products I know we were talking about actually aren’t gluten-free products). But it wouldn’t surprise me if gluten-free bread companies do use different ways to make the bread feel similar to the “normal” bread that we were used to eating before.
And you know, here’s the thing, let’s talk a moment about gluten-free bread. What are your thoughts on all these gluten-free products? I think a lot of them are junk.
Jennifer: That’s been my feeling. It’s been the impression that I’ve gotten from speaking to so many health experts that a lot of these gluten-free products are just as junky and filled with preservatives and things like that as their normal components out there. What are your thoughts, Melanie?
Melanie: Yeah. Well, there’s a big range of them. But whenever I pick them up and look at them when I’m shopping, I only see what you’re talking about. I see a long list of ingredients, lots of different additives and I also see a lot of refined grains. So they’re not using flour, but they’re using potato starch or they’re using or corn starch or other things that aren’t whole grain.
And one of the big issues with processed food is that they’re using highly processed ingredients and one of the worse – well, the worst two really are refined grains and sugar. If you had to, in one sentence, say what’s really the problem with processed food, there’s many of them, but the biggest ones are an abundance of refined grains and sugar.
So I think that the problem food scientists come into when they’re trying to make gluten-free bread or gluten-free crackers is that it’s just very hard to do it without using wheat. So they have to add in a lot of things that aren’t traditionally used in those products in order to make the whole thing work and come together and not fall apart in your mouth or in the bag.
Jennifer: Yes, because years ago, back in 2008 when I went gluten-free, I had to give up bread. Because it was so bad, it would just fall apart and crumble.
Melanie: Yeah, it’s like dry and…
Jennifer: Yeah! It was so bad. And even still now, there’s some of those products still out there somehow on the market. I’m surprised those companies haven’t gone out of business because they’re just awful to eat.
But it is mind-boggling to me. Something just occurred to me. You said like “the food scientists who make our food, who are making these products” and it never occurred to me that there is a food scientist behind these products.
Jennifer: That’s disturbing!
Melanie: Yeah. Well, the big food companies are now using the gluten-free trend to sell more products. I mean, they’re all over it now and they’re trying to come up with all these new types of bread, crackers, traditionally wheat-based products. You’ll probably find more and more of them in the frozen aisle, for breakfast items as well that are gluten-free because they want to hop on this trend. The sales are still growing.
And so yeah, they’re putting their food scientists to work to figure out how to make all of these products that they’ve been selling for years and years, how to make them gluten-free. And to do that, they need to come up with novel ingredients and new ways of processing these things. They don’t just lend themselves to – they don’t just sort of create themselves. These products have to be finely engineered and a lot of thought and technology has to go into them.
Jennifer: And just to kind of go back to gluten-free bread for a second, I wrote this article about xanthan gum, which was actually inspired a year ago by your book. You horrified me about xanthan gum.
Could you just share with everybody a little bit what that is and why this is in no way, shape or form a normal food? It’s not like an apple. It’s not like some other fermented food. This is a highly processed food. So why don’t you share with everybody your thoughts?
Melanie: Well, gums are a whole category of food ingredient – gums and starches. But gums kind of have their own subset (and there’s lots of them). Xanthan gums is probably one of the biggest.
So xanthan gum is just kind of a good marker. If you see xanthan gum on a product, it’s probably a highly processed product. They function to stabilize products and give them texture, gives them thickness. If it’s in yoghurt, it gives thickness. If it’s in breaded type products, it will help hold moisture so things don’t become too dry.
So it’s just part of this assembly of processed food. Xanthan gum, in particular is made by the fermenting of a bacteria. When this bacteria is fermented, it produces a slimy kind of film (like a gummy type film) and then that’s used to create xanthan gum.
It’s not a fermentation process like you would ferment something at home like making your own kombucha at home or miso. These are multi-step, very high technical processes to create this type of ingredient.
Jennifer: And it’s not just this slime. I will admit, I did at one point buy a bag of xanthan gum, which has never been opened and sat in my cupboard for several years now, but it comes to me and it looks like it’s perfectly white powder. It looks very fine. It’s like, “This is safe. You can eat this. It’s white and it’s powdered.”
I almost think that it’s incredibly deceiving. Not even just that, even the gluten-free flours and sugar, everything is so white and uniform and perfect.
Is this something that they also take into account, making everything look a certain way so that it’s appetizing to us?
Melanie: Yeah, kind of. All of the people who were at that tradeshow that I mentioned earlier… all of the products that these ingredient companies were selling, I’d say maybe like 70% or 80% of them, they’re all these beige or neutral colored or white powders.
Everything has been condensed down, pulverized, and spray dried into a powder because that’s the most convenient form for the food industry to work with. It’s easy to ship. The shelf life is good. It doesn’t have any moisture in it. It’s not as heavy as shipping something that’s liquid.
So yeah, that’s the main. These beige powders are the foundation and the staple of the food industry and xanthan gum is just one of them.
And at one point, I sat down and counted up the number of ingredients in a Subway sandwich. Now, at the time, Subway is one of these companies that slowly – they haven’t really done it yet, but they’ve taken out a few of their most odious ingredients. So the Subway sandwich, I looked at it and it had a 105 ingredients in it, which is startling.
I don’t think most people realize that Subway, the chain who has pioneered the “Eat Fresh” slogan would have 105 ingredients to make one of their sandwiches, which is just a typical sandwich. And now, it’s 65. But anyway, half of those ingredients are things you would not have at home. They’re all these dried, dusty substances that come from far and wide and are made in laboratories.
Jennifer: And it’s not just Subway though. You’ve mentioned like Whole Foods, as well. If you go into Whole Foods, we would assume by the name that, “Oh, they carry ‘whole foods’, whole real foods,” but in reality, that’s probably not the case.
Melanie: Yeah, I know. People will debate that. They’ll say, “Well, isn’t it better to have organic pop tarts than to just have the regular non-organic pop tarts?” I just don’t think it is because I think it’s confusing and it can be deceptive to people.
If you’re shopping at Whole Foods and you’re buying all these things in the middle aisles – I mean, Whole Foods sells lots of great, fresh foods, fresh produce as do most supermarkets on the perimeter, the outer edges of the store, but in the middle, they have a lot of the same crap that every other supermarket does.
It’ll have fewer ingredients. It won’t have artificial colorings and flavorings and it won’t have chemical preservatives, so it’s slightly better, but I like to think of it as less bad. I just don’t think we need organic pop tarts and organic fruit loops.
Jennifer: These foods that have been so processed, the companies had to add back in nutrients, so they’ve been ‘fortified’, for example. That’s one word. I know why that happens, but why does that happen? Can you tell everybody? Where do these vitamins and minerals and all these stuff, where do they even come from?
Melanie: The issue just generally with processed food is two-fold. One, it’s what they’re adding in to these products. So it’s all the strange additives, the dubious things, the refined grains, the sugar, the excessive amount of bad types of fat. So that’s one part.
And then the other part is what’s not in it. It’s hard to say which is more problematic, but the industrial processing of food unfortunately has the unintended consequences of destroying a lot of the inherent nutrition that’s contained in foods when it’s real and unprocessed and it comes off the farm whether it’s organic or not.
Sometimes, it’s intentional like if we’re taking out fiber because we don’t want that gritty feel in our product, whatever it is. And a lot of times, it’s unintentional like sometimes in the creation of breakfast cereal, it goes through machines and it goes through extremely high temperature cooking processes, multiple ones and some of the more sensitive vitamins, for instance, are destroyed.
So that’s the reason why it’s virtually impossible to go down the cereal aisle and find a box that doesn’t have this whole slew of added vitamins and minerals put into it. And these are synthetic vitamins and minerals that are created in these very unexpectedly industrial, chemically based processes and a lot of them are – about half of our global vitamin production is coming from China.
Melanie: Yeah, it’s about half, yeah. Because it’s become a very commoditized business, a lot of the western companies have gotten out of it and the Chinese have sort of jumped into that opportunity. So yeah, most of the big vitamin factories now are in China.
Jennifer: Wow! So if you wanted to avoid products especially foods made in China, you’ll be surprised to find that they’re probably showing up on your breakfast table.
Melanie: The actual breakfast cereal was probably assembled in a factory in the U.S., but a lot of those ingredients, certainly the vitamins (or probably the vitamins) and a lot of the others, the food additive industry in general has migrated to China. Xanthan gum, a lot of that is produced in China, a lot of the sugars and sweeteners, a lot of the starches. A lot of those ingredients are probably sourced and originating from China.
Jennifer: Oh, my! That is so horrifying. I really do my darnest not to eat food that comes from China just simply because their atmosphere, their soil, everything is so polluted. I don’t even know what to say. You’ve blown my mind.
Is the FDA doing anything to regulate this?
Melanie: They inspect. I think under the new food safety law, which is just very, very slow (I think it was 2010), it’s just slowly now being implemented. They’ve increased the amount of imports, food imports that they actually inspect, but I think it went from like 1% to 4%. So there’s still a huge flood of things coming in and they don’t have the resources or the money to be inspecting anywhere near a good portion of it.
Jennifer: It’s actually laughable that it’s like, “Oh, we went from 1% to 4%.” It’s ridiculous! It’s basically the food is entering the country and not being checked. Everyone is asleep at the wheel.
Melanie: Right, right. And the stuff that they’re concentrating the most on as they should are the fresh products, the fresh fruits and vegetables and if any – I don’t think we get a lot of meat from China, but those types of things are of concern because they may have food-borne bacteria like e. coli and salmonella, et cetera.
Jennifer: So thinking back to your book and going to this conference, I’m sure there was plenty of moments where you were left just speechless and shocked, but is there one particular little story or tidbit that you’d love to leave us with that is just mind-boggling how we think maybe things are real, but in reality, they’re not?
Melanie: Yeah, the most shocking thing was how all the people that were there made no bones about presenting the swapping of real food or real ingredients for imitation. The imitation of it was a good thing. They didn’t try and hide that at all.
So I went up to this large starch manufacturer at one point and they had this yogurt and everyone was creating these little prototype products with their ingredients in it that you could test.
So they have made this Greek yogurt. At the time, Greek yogurt was just becoming a really big deal. They said, “This Greek yogurt is made with our starch with milk protein concentrate because it’s much cheaper. You don’t have to go through the elaborate, traditional process of making Greek yogurt, which is straining it to create that thickness and to produce that higher protein content. You could just put it in, take those dry powders, those dusty, beige powders and put them in and it’ll give you what you want for much less cost.”
And then I went up to a booth within minutes later that was selling these little blueberry bits. They had created these blueberry muffins made out of them and they said, “Oh, taste. See if you can tell the difference.” They were selling these things to the consumers, and where supposed to be indistinguishable from real blueberries. And these bits were just made of sugar, flour, cornstarch, coloring and maybe about 5% of actual blueberry puree.
Jennifer: Oh, my gosh.
Melanie: They did an amazing job. I tasted it. I broke the blueberry in half and tasted it and I probably would’ve sworn that they were real blueberries if they hadn’t told me what it was. And they were very proud of this, “Oh, this is wonderful! It’s vastly cheaper than putting actual blueberries into your product. And the shelf life, if you use real blueberries, things go bad real quickly.”
So all of this was just sort of open and on display. Everyone was trying to talk about cheaper, shortcut ways for food to be made a lot cheaper with less real food.
Jennifer: Wow! I would’ve been so upset. I don’t know how else you could react to that because it just seems utterly horrible to think that there’s this whole underbelly of the food industry that is fixated on how we can engineer food to really kind of trick people or fake people out into thinking that its’ real when it’s not.
Melanie: Although they’re not doing it for any ill-intent or malicious purposes.
Melanie: It’s just business. It’s just to sell products and make money. So all these ingredient companies are selling it to the manufacturers. They’re pitching it as a way, “Here’s how you can make your blueberry muffins a lot cheaper. Use our blueberry bits in this product.”
The food manufacturers love that because these are all public companies, publicly traded companies that are under enormous pressure every quarter to continue to not just increase their sales, but increase their profit margin. So they need to find ways to produce their food more cheaply. It’s just the reality of our market-based capitalist system that we have.
Jennifer: Yeah. And I know it’s harder and harder as folks want cheaper and cheaper food. We all want to spend less money on food. Companies naturally are looking for ways around that to help the consumer spend, but too, they want to make a profit as well. It’s not just a really expensive hobby for any company to just put food out and hope for the best.
Melanie: So yeah, I think it’s important for people to realize if you’re looking to spend less on food in ways that you’re really buying products for very, very cheap or you’re buying the cheapest product on the market, there just may be a hidden cost in there. There just may be some things that you’re not realizing that you’re down the road paying for.
Jennifer: Yeah. Melanie, I really appreciate all of these. You’ve definitely boggled my mind yet again. I really appreciate you coming on the podcast and sharing the information that you know.
I encourage everybody to go out and get your book, Pandora’s Lunchbox. It’s an excellent book.
It’s shocking, so be ready to be shocked. And realize too that the gluten-free food industry is in essence no different. Companies are using shortcuts to make products that you will buy and like and have no idea that the ingredients in them, it’s not real food at all. So let’s stop kidding ourselves.
But Melanie, thank you so much for joining us.
Melanie: Yeah. Thanks, Jennifer.
Jennifer: Please stay in touch with Melanie. Go visit her on her website at www.MelanieRWarner.com. I’ll put all the links below so you’ll be able to go and follow her and stay in touch.
Please subscribe, rate and review this podcast. And then leave your questions and comments on the podcast below!
What did you find shocking? Are you going to continue to eat things like xanthan gum and all these other starches and binders? Whatever it is that you can buy at the grocery store but you don’t really recognize what it is, well maybe you should start to think twice about that.
Thank you, guys so much for joining me. I look forward to seeing you all the next time. Bye bye.
The links referred to in this episode are:
Melanie Warner: http://www.MelanieRWarner.com