Author Melanie Warner discusses the complexities of the processed foods that line the shelves at the supermarket.
Author Melanie Warner discusses the complexities of the processed foods that line the shelves at the supermarket. - 
Listen To The Story

You cruise down the aisle of most any grocery store, and what you're seeing -- despite what you might think -- isn't properly called just "food." Most of those items are what we've come to know as processed food. Cookies, crackers, cereal, even yogurt, crammed with various chemicals that'll let it sit on the shelf for a good long time, all the while containing enough sugar and salt to make it taste good.

Processed foods are, plus or minus, 70 percent of what most of us eat.

"Nobody set out to dominate the American diet, to make everything we're eating so highly processed and so highly technical -- it was a gradual revolution," said Melanie Warner, the author of the new book, 'Pandora's Lunchbox.' "It basically started 100 years ago."

Warner said that while scientists and even marketing executives at food companies do care about making their food healthier, and want to do so, it's not easy.

"It's really difficult for them to do because it's not what they're designed to do," she explained. "And a lot of times, when they try and make healthy food and they try to take out things like sugar and salt, the products just kind of fall apart. And oftentimes, people don't buy them."

Warner said that there's an estimated 5,000 different additives that are allowed to go into our food, but: "The FDA doesn't actually know how many additives are going into our food. This is in part because regulations are not only self-regulatory -- so the food industry is doing the testing -- but it's also voluntary," she said. "The ingredient companies don't actually have to tell the FDA about a new ingredient. If they choose to, they can simply just launch it into the market. The FDA doesn't know about them, and nobody else really knows about them."

Offer your own favorite processed foods by commenting below or tweeting us @MarketplaceAPM.

“I think the best compliment I can give is not to say how much your programs have taught me (a ton), but how much Marketplace has motivated me to go out and teach myself.” – Michael in Arlington, VA

As a nonprofit news organization, what matters to us is the same thing that matters to you: being a source for trustworthy, independent news that makes people smarter about business and the economy. So if Marketplace has helped you understand the economy better, make more informed financial decisions or just encouraged you to think differently, we’re asking you to give a little something back.

Become a Marketplace Investor today – in whatever amount is right for you – and keep public service journalism strong. We’re grateful for your support.

Follow Kai Ryssdal at @kairyssdal