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Part 2: “Pandora’s Lunchbox” and the Truth About Soy Protein in Processed Food

Web ExclusiveMarch 15, 2013
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Watch part two of our interview with with author Melanie Warner, longtime food reporter and author of the newly published book, Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal. In our extended conversation, she examines a very common ingredient in processed food: soy protein.

Click here to see part one of this interview with Warner, when she describes how decades of food science have resulted in the cheapest, most abundant, most addictive and most nutritionally inferior food in the world.

See all of Democracy Now!’s coverage of food issues.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Melanie Warner is joining us, longtime journalist covering the food industry. Her new book is called Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal. Melanie, can you talk about soy products?

MELANIE WARNER: Yeah, I think soy is one of the more confusing products out there for people. I mean, there—and the problem is, there’s soy, and there’s soy. So you have traditional soy products that have been consumed in Asia for centuries, and these are things like miso and tempeh. These are fermented soy products that are actually quite healthy. Tempeh, for instance, has beneficial bacteria in it, much like yogurt does. People don’t always realize that. And then you have—

AMY GOODMAN: I’m a great devotee of tempeh. I love tempeh.

MELANIE WARNER: Yeah, and it’s actually quite delicious, more so than tofu. And so—


MELANIE WARNER: Yeah. And then you have—and then you have the other kind of soy products, which is these highly processed soy products, which are very predominant ingredients in processed food.

So, for instance, soybean oil. Soybean oil has been the leading fat that’s been in processed food for the past five or six decades. It’s so prevalent that it consumes—my estimation was that it—we’re consuming 10 percent of our total daily calories from soybean oil, in part because it’s in—used to fry a lot of foods. So, soybean oil is something that when you go to the grocery store, I’ve seen—I’ve seen it listed on chip packages as a simple, natural ingredient. And if you look at bottles of cooking oil over in a different aisle, it’ll say “100 percent natural.” But I spent a fair amount of time learning about how soybean oil is produced, and when you find out about it, you realize it doesn’t scream “natural” at all. The main process uses a chemical called hexane, which is known to be a neurotoxic chemical. And they use that to leech the oil out of the soybeans. It’s very efficient at doing that. And then they vacuum it off. So the idea is that no hexane remains in the final oil, or if any does, it’s small amounts. And then soybean oil goes through other processes, like bleaching and deodorizing. And this has the effect of removing some of the healthy things that would otherwise be in soybean oil, like vitamin E and compounds called phytosterols. So—and then sometimes there’s more processes, like hydrogenation, this relatively new process called interesterification. So this is a very processed processed oil that we’re consuming.

And then you could look at something like soy protein, which comes after the soybean oil production. And that is also something that, by the time it gets to be soy protein—I spent some time inside a soy protein manufacturing plant; this one was outside of—outside of Memphis—and saw these giant hissing and whirling machines and all these chemicals that go into the process in the making of this, that by the time it gets—and there are so many steps—that by the time you get to soy protein, you have almost no nutrition there. Soybeans are this tidy package of vitamins and minerals and fiber and phytosterols, and by the time you get to soy protein, really all you have left is protein, and everything else has been processed out.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how do you look for what’s good or bad when you’re buying food, in terms of the ingredient list? And let me go to a subject that might surprise people: Subway. You know, it’s being touted as the great both, yes, chain, but healthy alternative, because the bread is baked, you know, in the store, and there are a lot of vegetables that are included. I was shocked, on page 11 of “Weird Science,” where you talk about the number of ingredients of a Subway sweet onion chicken teriyaki sandwich. And for folks who like little quizzes, guess how many ingredients there are in a Subway sweet onion chicken teriyaki sandwich. The answer would be 105. Fifty-five are dry, dusty substances that were added to the sandwich for a whole variety of reasons. I’m going to try to read some of these. “The chicken contains thirteen: potassium chloride, maltodextrin, autolyzed yeast extract, gum Arabic, salt, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, fructose, dextrose, thiamine hydrochloride, soy protein concentrate, modified potato starch, sodium phosphates. The teriyaki glaze has twelve: sodium benzoate, modified food starch, salt, sugar, acetic acid, maltodextrin, corn starch, spice, wheat, natural flavoring, garlic powder, yeast extract. The fat-free sweet onion sauce, you get another eight.” And it goes on from there. I don’t have any of these ingredients in my cupboards, Melanie.

MELANIE WARNER: Amy, you did a great job pronouncing all that. I’m very impressed. I think it’s very important—I spent a lot of time looking at ingredient lists, and I think it’s very important to look at what goes into your food. It’s important to look at the amount of sugar and sodium in your food, but also look at the ingredients and see what’s in there. And if there are a zillion ingredients, 30 ingredients for a given product, that is a highly processed product. And if there are things that you don’t recognize, that’s something that you might—you might want to think about looking in the grocery store for things that have a lot more simple, simple ingredient lists. And think about, is this something—is this a real food, or is this a highly processed product that has a dubious relationship to something natural that once grew on a farm? And I think you can do that by using common sense and also by looking at the ingredient list and thinking, “Is this something that I could actually—that I could actually make at home?”

AMY GOODMAN: What about Gatorade?

MELANIE WARNER: Yeah, Gatorade was the subject of a recent controversy, where a teenager in Alabama discovered that there was an ingredient called brominated vegetable oil in her Gatorade. And she was—she was surprised to learn this because bromine, which is used to make brominated vegetable oil, is a flame retardant. So she circulated a petition, and as some petitions do nowadays, it became widely, wildly popular. And the result was that Gatorade removed brominated vegetable oil from their product, which was kind of amazing, to respond to a 15-year-old girl in Alabama, that she had this effect. So, Gatorade—I guess we can think of Gatorade as being slightly healthier. But still, it has an enormous amount of sugar, and it’s basically sugar water. And it’s unfortunate that Gatorade is often marketed to kids who are involved in sports activities, and people are convinced somehow that our kids need Gatorade after an hour soccer game instead of—instead of water, which is always the best way to rehydrate. I mean, you drink Gatorade, and you’re getting quite a lot of sugar.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is amazing, a 15-year-old girl, this ingredient banned in other countries.

MELANIE WARNER: Banned in other countries. And it’s kind of a surprising ingredient, because it was—it was a subject of a number of concerning studies in the '70s. And the FDA looked at these back then and decided that, OK, we'll let this ingredient be on the market, but conditionally: only pending further studies to make sure that things are really OK. And those studies have really never been done. And it’s just one—it’s one illustration of the way that there’s a lot of ingredients that—there’s actually 5,000 additives that are allowed to be added to food in the United States. And there’s—it’s just one example of how there are a number of those ingredients that really slip through the cracks and are really not being subjected to a close, scrutinizing eye by the government, specifically the FDA, that people—that people might assume and that we might like them to be doing.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to a few things. One is that Pepsi-Cola owns Gatorade. And then just what Sarah Kavanagh, this 15-year-old smarty pants—she’s remarkably smart—wrote. She said, “The other day I Googled 'brominated vegetable oil.' It was the last time I drank Orange Gatorade. I found out that this 'BVO' is a controversial flame retardant chemical that is in some Gatorade drinks! Who wants to drink that? Not me!” And, you know, she got this mega-multinational corporation to cave, saying they’re going to replace it with a substitute. But what’s the substitute, Melanie?

MELANIE WARNER: Oh, gosh, you know, I forget. It’s something—I’ve been meaning to look it up. It’s something—it’s another highly processed chemical that I had never heard of. And yeah, it’s worth looking—

AMY GOODMAN: I’m sure Sarah will be on it.

MELANIE WARNER: Yeah, it’s worth looking into that. But the point is—and the thing that Sarah discovered—is that it’s not used in other countries, specifically in Europe, and the companies find alternatives in other countries. The same is true of food dyes. It’s considered—food dyes, like Red 40 and Blue 1, you see on ingredient lists. They are considered to be linked to hyperactivity in children in Europe. And so, if you go to Europe, you see products that have warning labels on them indicating this. And actually, the food companies—there are not very many products in Europe that actually contain these ingredients, because food companies don’t want to put that kind of a warning label on their products. So they’re able to—they find alternatives. They use more natural food colorings.

AMY GOODMAN: Melanie, talk about extrusion machines.

MELANIE WARNER: Yeah, extrusion machines. This is—these are one of the—the type of machinery that the food industry uses that nobody has in their home kitchen. The closest thing you could compare it to is maybe a homemade pasta maker, but that’s a very far cry. These are highly efficient machines. They are—they have steel, really heavy screws inside them that turn, create enormous amount of pressure and what food scientists call “shear.” And they’re very effective. You can put a whole bunch of ingredients into one side of an extruder, and it pops out, or extrudes, on the other side. There’s a die. You can have it in any kind of shape you want. You could have it for—shape of a—letters of the alphabet, like for alphabet cereal, or honeycombs. Or you could have it for Chicken McNuggets. And out on the other side pops a pretty much fully formed product. And one of the unfortunate thing about extruders is that they’re very good at efficiently making products—you can zip things in and out of there in a minute—but they are fairly damaging to nutrition, particularly certain vitamins and also sometimes—sometimes fiber.

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