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Andy Bellatti's Posts

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Opening Pandora’s Lunchbox: Processed foods are even scarier than you thought

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.

Melanie Warner.
Melanie Warner.

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?

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Aisle be damned: How Big Food dominates your supermarket choices

It’s no surprise that gigantic, multinational companies own most of the dominant organic brands out there. Big Food’s tentacles stretch far: Just four companies control 80 percent of the beef market, and many competing brands in the snack aisle huddle under the umbrella of the same parent company.

Wenonah Hauter.
Wenonah Hauter.

The corporate control and consolidation of the food industry is the central theme of Wenonah Hauter’s new book, Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America. Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch, explores “the battle over the food and farming in America” as independent farmers and companies struggle to stay afloat in the face of corporate mergers and bad food policy.

But before you put down your (Kellogg-produced) Gardenburger to protest your local cattle ranch, Hauter warns a bigger response is required. “[I]t’s time that we stop demonizing farmers as the chief culprits behind our dysfunctional food system and start addressing the structural issues,” she says.

I recently chatted with Hauter over email about Foodopoly. She talks about how the system got the way it did, and what you can do to fix it:

Q. Give us a snapshot of the history of food-industry consolidation.

A. Just 20 companies produce most of the food eaten by Americans (yes, even organic brands). These companies are so large, they have the economic and political power to dictate food policy, from laws on advertising junk food to children and manipulating nutrition standards to weakening federal pesticide regulations and blocking the labeling of genetically engineered foods.

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Let’s put an end to ‘dietary tribalism’

Every time I’m on social media, I am reminded of a growing trend that worries me -- let’s call it dietary tribalism. I use this term to refer to the many fractured groups with conflicting dietary views who, for the most part, don't realize just how much they have in common.

This recent piece in the New York Times about the "challenges of plant-based eating in a meat-based world” got me thinking, as it described several people’s efforts to adopt a vegan lifestyle and how they were fraught with challenges. Not only did I find this lens problematic (for one, not everyone finds the transition that difficult), but I was struck by how it repeated a familiar, yet inaccurate frame: that one is either a vegan or they'll eat an entire cow in one sitting.

But it bothered me even more that the comments turned, predictably, into "veganism isn't natural" vs. "everyone should go vegan." It was almost the perfect microcosm of what happens in the food world when, rather than discuss issues we have in common, we take sides. All this mud-slinging detracts from a more important conversation.

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Big Dairy’s latest smear tactic

There was a time, not too long ago, when American’s milk options were limited to various forms of cow’s milk (i.e. full-fat, reduced-fat, skim, lactose-free). But times have changed. Soy was the first non-dairy milk to “go mainstream” in the mid 1990s, and you can find “milk” varieties including almond, coconut, hazelnut, hemp, oat, and sunflower seed on supermarket shelves,

Much like an only child who is the center of attention until a sibling comes along, Big Dairy has started to lash out. “Alternative milks” are no longer relegated to the vegan world; many vegetarians and omnivores also purchase and consume plant-based milks. This is bad news for Big Dairy (a.k.a. The California Milk Processor Board).

Behold their latest campaign — “Real Milk Comes From Cows” (tagline: “many imitations, still no equal”). The idea, apparently, is to point out all the ways in which plant-based milks have cooties. One of their inane recent ads can be seen in the screenshot below:

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Never mind the meat — worry about eating enough plants

This post is part of Protein Angst, a series on the environmental and nutritional complexities of high-protein foods. Our goal is to publish a range of perspectives on these very heated topics. Add your feedback and story suggestions here.

Most people erroneously think proper nutrition is mainly about vitamins and minerals, but there is a whole other world within the plant kingdom: phytonutrients. Photo: MJM

By and large, the most environmentally friendly dietary decision one can make is to eat less animal protein (see deforestation, water pollution, and greenhouse-gas emissions, etc). But for many, the notion of eschewing -- or significantly cutting back on -- meat, eggs, and dairy brings up nutritional concerns. As I see it, not only are those concerns usually unfounded, they should pale in comparison to the question of getting enough plant-based foods.

Let's begin with protein. Here's something most people don't know: Barring oils and some fruits, there is protein in almost every food. Yes, that includes broccoli, spinach, and potatoes. Most people are surprised to learn that a cup of cooked oatmeal offers as much protein as an egg, and an almond butter sandwich on whole grain bread provides 15 grams of protein (around a quarter of a day's recommendation for a 160-pound male).  To determine your protein requirement, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2, and then multiply that number by 0.8. You can, of course, surpass that figure.

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McDonald’s rings in 2012 with farmwashing

Remember last year's Washington state-based "From Here" campaign, which added a "locavore" twist to McDonald's highly processed offerings? Well, the fast food giant will take farmwashing to a national scale starting next month with a truly groan-worthy advertising campaign. Here is one of the upcoming ads: This is all part of the company's desire to tell the "farm to fork" story behind its food. It certainly comes at an interesting time; just last month, McDonald's dumped egg supplier Sparboe Farms amid reports of animal cruelty and unsanitary conditions. But, back to the fries -- they are far from a "farm …

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Confessions of a former Big Food executive

Photo: Casey V. PhotographyA few weeks ago, I learned of a relatively new blog about food industry deception, but with an interesting twist. The blog's author is Bruce Bradley, who spent over 15 years as a food marketer at companies like General Mills, Pillsbury, and Nabisco. He has since, in his words, "become more educated about the risks and environmental impact of eating processed foods," and is now a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) enthusiast. Recently, I had the chance to ask Mr. Bradley about the industry, his blog, and the people behind today's processed food companies. Q. On your website …

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Busting Monsanto's 'better' broccoli

Monsanto's "naturally better" broccoli. Many of us are familiar with Monsanto the seed giant, but who knew the company was making a new ready-to-eat packaged broccoli? The new product is called Beneforté, and it quietly launched last October. This vegetable is not genetically modified (i.e. no pesticides were engineered into its genes), but rather a hybrid of commercial broccoli with a variety native to southern Italy. Advertised with a "naturally better broccoli" tag line, the selling point pitched at the health conscious is that "it boosts the body's antioxidant enzymes at least 2 times more than other broccoli." Specifically, one …