Pandora’s Lunchbox:

How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal


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About the Book

PANDORA’S LUNCHBOX tells the story of what happens to processed foods before they reach our plates (or are handed to us through a car window.) With packaged foods and fast foods so ubiquitous – comprising roughly 70 percent of the calories we consume — it’s easy to overlook the fact that our diets have changed more in the last 100 years than they have in the last 10,000. Much of what we now eat is not so much as cooked, as it is engineered into finely-tuned, nutrient-deficient creations of science.

Former New York Times business reporter Melanie Warner offers a rare look inside the monumentally complex edifice of America’s food manufacturing industry and presents a case for why our high-tech, Byzantine system of food processing is of profound importance to a nation of eaters who are overweight, and half of whom suffer from at least one diet-related chronic disease. The book takes us inside the labs and high-tech facilities that help churn out the cheapest, most abundant, most addictive and most nutritionally devastating food in the world. We learn how some of our most popular foods are produced and meet the people who, today and over the past century, have helped redefine what Americans eat.

Combining meticulous research, historical and cultural analysis, and vivid writing, Warner delves into the hidden world of food processing. From the origins of the FDA to the presence of soybean oil in nearly everything, PANDORA’S LUNCHBOX exposes the industries that create much of what we eat today and that are partly to blame for our nation’s health crisis.

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What They’re Saying About the Book

Melanie Warner’s new book about processed food is so much fun that you might forget how depressing it all is…..There are more Holy Cow! moments here than even someone who thinks he or she knows what’s going on in food production could predict.

– Mark Bitttman, The New York Times

Gripping exposé.

Wall Street Journal

A well-researched, nonpreachy, worthwhile read.

Kirkus Reviews

Warner’s thought-provoking study does an excellent job presenting the facts without sensationalizing, and offering common sense solutions to those seeking to make better food choices.

Publishers Weekly

Much as the 2008 documentary Food, Inc. attacked commercially farmed milk and meat, Pandora’s Lunchbox assaults the rest of the food available in the grocery aisles. Warner’s appetite-suppressing depiction of processed foods is sure to inspire readers to consider how they eat.

The Onion‘s AV Club

If you’re concerned about food safety and the perils of the agricultural-gastronomic complex, this book is indispensable.


Well-researched and well-reviewed, this book avoids the easy polemics of other writers and presents a solid case for ‘cleaning up’ our food supply.

Utica Observer-Dispatch

Warner pulls back the curtain to reveal the industry secrets of how our most basic staples are being transformed into processed foodstuffs to boost profits. We get an (un)healthy dose of hexane-extraction, gun puffing and roast chicken type flavor, but like the best investigative journalists, she uses the personal stories of food scientists, innovators and crusaders not to mention her own home experiments, to show why you’ll want to think twice before hitting the drive-thru or reaching for that “health bar.”

– Robert Kenner, director and producer of Food, Inc.

Melanie Warner is a journalist of keen skill, and in Pandora’s Lunchbox, she pries the lid off well-packaged secrets about how our so-called food is made. The resulting bounty of insights and revelations is almost overwhelming. This is a book of stunning, at times shocking, truths, told in a crisp, compelling. Of profound importance for everyone who eats.

– David L. Katz, M.D., Director of Yale University Prevention Research Center and Director of the Integrative Medicine at Griffin Hospital

Pandora’s Lunchbox is a brilliant and fascinating exploration of how our food gets processed, its powerful effects on our health, and what we can do about it. Highly recommended!

– Dean Ornish, M.D., author of Eat More, Weigh Less and The Spectrum: A Scientifically Proven Program to Feel Better, Live Longer, Lose Weight, and Gain Health

In Pandora’s Lunchbox, Melanie Warner has produced an engaging account of how today’s ‘food processing industrial complex’ replaced real food with the inventions of food science. Her history of how this happened and who benefits from these inventions should be enough to inspire everyone to get back into the kitchen and start cooking.

– Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and coauthor of Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics

The best book I’ve read on food in years.

– Bill Marler, food safety advocate, manager director Marler Clark


If you like Pandora’s Lunchbox, tell Amazon. Click here to write an review.



52 Responses to Pandora’s Lunchbox

  • David Hanson says:

    I just read the WSJ review of this book this morning. According to the review, you wrote in the book “that our processed-food intake goes down to 70%”.

    NO, NO, NO!!! Our processed food intake needs to go down to ZERO%. ZERO processed food is the healthiest and it is easy to do. Just buy only produce from the farm and whole grains from the farm — nothing added — just food!

    We have been doing this for years. For example our food today is:
    Breakfast — whole grain hot cereal (nothing added just the grain and without milk). Specifically, Bob’s Red Mill oat meal for my wife and Bob’s Red Mill High fiber cerearl for me. Also, we each ate a bowl of sliced tomatoes from our garden.

    Lunch — a green smoothie make of kale from a local farmer, red cabbage from our garden, and several organic carrots.

    Dinner — a vegetable curry, lightly cooked — tomatoes from our garden, red onion, zucchini from a local farmer, eggplant from a local farmer, green beans from our garden, and garlic.

    We something similar to this every day. We eat out once or twice a year (even when we travel we stay in hotel rooms with a small kitchen) and when we do, we eat only fresh vegetables from the salad bar or we eat lightly steamed greens at a Chinese restaurant.

    You did a disservice to your readers when you didn’t recommend a healthy way for them to eat.


    • admin says:

      Hi David. Your meals sound wonderfully healthy and delicious. Thanks for pointing out this error in the WSJ review, I will see if they can correct it online. In my book, I point out that currently 70% of our diet comes from highly processed food, and what I recommend is for that ratio to go down to somewhere around 30%. Zero would be great, but probably not realistic, at least on a population-wide basis. My book isn’t meant to be prescriptive but I do offer a few thoughts and share a few stories on how people can rebalance their diets toward real food.

    • Sally says:

      Hi David,

      I think it’s wonderful that you have a local farmer and can grow your own veggies in your garden. Unfortunately, not all of us can do that. We purchase as much “whole” food as we can, but it is from a grocery store and not always organic (can’t afford). We do what we can, which is pretty good. I don’t think it is fair for you to believe everyone has the ways and means that you do. I have not yet read he book, but I don’t believe it is the intent to recommend a healthy way to eat, but to point out what the processed food we are eating really is.

  • tim warner says:

    Hey Melsy!!! the site looks great! So happy for you and proud to be your brother. Such a HUGE accomplishment and achievement. Love you so much. Talk soon!!

  • BRIAN MURPHY says:

    I read your wsj article “Liquid Chicken”. Thank you for trying to wake up people to this joke of what we let companies call “food”. Highly processed food will shorten everyone’s live’s.
    It’s up to everyone to figure out what they’re eating….

    Best answer….eat “Live Foods” only…..i.e fresh fruit/veggies…nothing that comes in a frozen package.

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  • Lauren says:

    Melanie, congrats on an incredible book! I received this book the other day and am 2/3rds the way through. Eye opening, informative and incredible research. I am a trained chef and I really appreciate your work and knowledge. I will be telling everyone I know to read your work! Normally I wouldn’t comment but felt to need to say thx!

    Ps @David Hanson, I would suggest you purchase the book and read it.

  • Lilo Camp says:

    This book is much needed literature. What we eat is not only important to our health and well-being, but affects everything else around us. Even if we personally eat whole foods, we are paying dearly for the results of this vast industrial food complex. It starts with environmental pollution, increased health insurance needs, and ends with devastating effects on our local economy and community. I hope this book helps increase awareness of how we make our food purchases.

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  • The main statement to make is American food is unfit for human consumption.
    The abomination called bread is a mushy highly refined GM wheat with increased starch which turns instantly into sugar in your mouth and increased gluten causing alllergies of course devoid of fibre (Burkitt)
    and is essentially a paste shot through jets as promoted at the 1939 New York Word’s Fair and is so inedible and horrible that they had to invent a machine called a toaster to burn it first before you could consume it.
    Possibly triticale and semolina or spelt or durum might be acceptable as human food but that garbage isnt.
    It causes ulcers gallstones appendicitis diverticulosis and bowel cancer as well as obesity diabetes heart disease stroke (mostly Burkitt).
    Stop eating wheat potatoes and corn as well as rice and switch to barley rye and oats unless they are also contaminated ie GM.

    Milk is also inedible as it is not from a cow but a machine which produces not a hundred llters of milk a year but ten thousand liters and it is full of antiboitics and growth hormone causeing or promoting at least breast and prostate and bowel cancers as well and of course contributing to the metabolic syndrome.

    The idiotic propaganda of bone mass is nonsense, legumes beans peas chick peas lentils have more calcium than milk.
    So that is a lie.Where does a bull moose or a bull elephant get their calcium form? Thir cows’ milk? No from grass twigs weeds foliage to grow 200lb of horn or tusk of soilid bone. So the milk calcium legend is bullshit.

    One could go through every staple food item in the American food pantry and would find the same
    altered garbage no longer fit for human or animal consumption. Zoo animals would all die if fed from the left overs of our monstrous kitchens and restaurants. Fats food places are of course anathema for any sane person.

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  • KR says:

    I am never, ever going to be able to eat like David Hanson (one of the comments here). I can’t live on oats and kale. I do eat yogurt with ground flaxseed and wheatgerm every day to make sure I get healthy stuff in me.

    I am pretty horrified knowing what else I am eating. Sometimes it’s voluntary. I know quite well that my Skittles habit is not healthy, and I’m willing to take that. But I hate it when I think I am eating something healthy and I’ve been duped.

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  • I am a proponent of eating organic, fresh and raw, as much as possible. I applaud Melanie Warner’s efforts in bringing truth of our food industry to the attention of the general public. We need this education! After reading the WSJ book review on I’m adding this to my reading list.

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  • I am a former food process engineer who worked in R&D at some of the world’s largest food companies who believes Melanie got this story exactly right. If you can go to an IFT convention and you aren’t truly horrified, you are either not paying attention, or to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, your salary depends on you not being horrified. I have been trying for 20 years to tell folks what Melanie so eloquently and expertly has done in this understandable and honest portrayal of the food industry. Unlike other authors who only spoke to CEOs of “food” companies who make brand name finished goods and who speak vaguely of salt or fat, Melanie talked to the insiders and got the real scoop – the utter chemical stew that we have all been steeped in since before we were even born. She delved unafraid into the vats and chemical names and processes and actual science behind the ingredients, turned it into a fascinating and easily understandable account of exactly how we arrived where we are at. In doing so Melanie created what I think will become the Silent Spring of the food industry. It is that important a book. If you only read one book about the food industry – this is absolutely the one.

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  • JR says:

    I just finished the book last night and loved it. I read many books on food, health, and food history. I really enjoyed the way you wove history into the story of modern processed foods. I was dismayed to learn that vitamins from China can show up in our organic foods.

    As for the writing, the short pithy chapters and the straightforward clever style kept the book engaging, even when the subject matter became rather dense–especially the soy processing chapter.

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  • i’ve been itching to get my hands on this book since i saw ms. warner talk on book tv. very very interesting.

    i am wondering about whether synthetic vitamins get absorbed better if eaten with the appropriate whole food that also contains the vitamin in question?

    also about salad dressing – this seems to be the processed food that people give up last. surprising to me, because salad dressing is so easy. and cheap, especially vinaigrette. i will be inspecting some labels the next time i go shopping, including trader joe’s triscuit knockoff which is one of the very few processed foods i buy.

    and i am also wondering about increasing allergies/asthma, such as to peanut and gluten which seem most common. i can’t help noticing that peanuts are in the same plant family as soy, and that gluten is in the same plant family as corn. is there cross-sensitization happening?

    lastly, let me raise your consciousness about an energy-related issue, specifically products that contain a lot of water. not just bottled water or soda, but also ‘healthy’ fruit juices, milk, beer, etc.
    water is very heavy, and it costs a lot to ship it. in particular, it uses a great deal of energy such as diesel fuel, which is of course one reason why all the food companies choose dry powders. so shoppers who want to reduce their carbon footprint should question every watery product. fruit is a much better choice than juice as it still contains all the fiber. and i suspect cheese is a more cost-effective way to buy protein than is milk. plus which, avoiding heavy watery products makes it easier to shop on your bike.

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  • Stephanie Tripp says:

    As much as I find this information useful, as well as reminding me what I stand for, I need more. I know I shouldn’t eat the foods that are “bad” and “processed” but much like a smoker can’t quit cold turkey I can’t stop eating these foods at the drop I a hat. What I’m searching for or an informative tool of the best worst food to eat, what ” processed” foods to allow and what to get rid of in baby steps. Iv started my research, making the list of foods I eat day to day what I won’t give up and what I want to get real. Is there such information? If I am going to keep certain foods in my diet is there resource I can cite? Something to help me build a list of brands that are the best worst.

    • Melanie Warner says:

      If you’re looking for help creating lists of better processed food, you might try: Though I think a simpler approach is to look for products with shorter ingredient lists and minimal amounts of added sugar. That’s for supermarket products. At restaurants, it’s also important to look at calories and sodium, since chain restaurant meals can be loaded with both.

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