Real Food: Secrets in Labels

Two Butters
Photo by Ulterior Epicure on Flickr

So, in my previous post, I made a lot of comments about the government and how it interferes with the goals of Real Food, and I didn’t exactly include citations to back me up.  I hope to make a future post with citations and links to where I got the info from, but today is July 4th, Independence Day, and I wanted to focus on one of the things the government got right.  Labels.

Now, I’m not talking about the “Nutrition Facts” they stick on the side of every container.  I don’t count calories anymore, or carbs, or fats.  Sometimes I’ll pay attention to sodium and potassium, but that’s because I tend to eat a lot of salt anyway.  No, the part of the label that I pay attention to is the “Ingredients List”.

In some ways, the ingredients list seems stupid.  I don’t need a label to tell me that milk is in my milk carton or eggs in my egg carton.  Milk is milk and eggs are eggs, right?  Well, sure, but what about other things?  Like butter, for example?  You wouldn’t think so, but yes, you need a label.  Why?

Let me tell you a little story first.  Way back in the early 1990s, I was in kindergarten.  In kindergarten, we did little parties for every national holiday.  For Thanksgiving, my teacher thought it would be a good idea to show us how butter was made, since we had talked about the pilgrims making their own food.  I don’t remember all the ingredients exactly, but our teacher basically filled a jar with milk or cream, and maybe a little salt, and had us shake that thing to our heart’s content.  We all had to take turns, because it was a hard thing for 5 year olds to do.  In the end, we ended up with maybe a couple tablespoons of “butter”.

My point here is that my 5 year old self “knew” what butter was.  She knew it involved milk, and a lot of work, and not much else.  So, theoretically, we all know what butter is.  Butter is butter, just like milk is milk, right?

So why does a package of generic butter at Wal-mart list the ingredients as “Pasteurized Cream, Natural Flavorings.” ? What on earth are “natural flavorings” and why does my butter need them?  Welcome, my friends, to the world of industrial foods, where no basic item is sacred.  The thing is, that much like “fragrance” in cosmetics, natural flavorings could mean anything.  What’s really sad to me is that they feel the need to add these in to something that should just be cream and salt.  What did they do wrong that they need to add flavor to their butter?

Now, butter is actually one of the nicer examples.  Let’s take something a little more complex.  I like cottage cheese.  I eat it over applesauce or on toast for breakfast.  I, like most people, don’t like to pay a lot for my food, so I used to reach for the generic Wal-mart brand.  Cottage cheese is cottage cheese, right?  All the packages say cottage cheese, so they must be the same product, right?  Well, I wouldn’t be writing this if that was true.

Ingredients for Wal-mart brand cottage cheese: Cultured Nonfat Milk, Nonfat Milk, Cream, Whey, Salt, Guar Gum, Carrageenan, Cultured Dextrose, Locust Bean Gum, Citric Acid, Polysorbate 80, Acetylated Monoglycerides, Natural Flavor, Enzymes, Carbon Dioxide (To Help Protect Flavor).

I had a problem with natural flavor, but this…mess is something completely different.  I’ve gotten used to reading ingredient labels, so I know what some of these are.  The guar gum and locust bean gum are likely thickeners.  But most of the other stuff, I have no idea what it is or what it does.  Or why I would want to eat it.  To contrast:

Ingredients for Daisy brand cottage cheese: Cultured Skim Milk, Cream, Salt.

See the difference?  You’d never know it looking on the shelf.  You have to look at the ingredients label.  And before you go saying “Shay, you have to know that Wal-mart only makes crap”, Wal-mart isn’t the only offender.  Even my local dairy brand has added crap in their cottage cheese.  The brand that has a factory right here in the middle of town and buys the milk of local farmers.  Can’t get more local than that.  But they put extra stuff in their products, and so I don’t buy them.

I’ve been reading labels judiciously for a while now, starting from when I was dieting.  And the more complex or processed the food, the more difficult the ingredients list gets.  In general, if the list has an ingredient that you don’t know what it is or what it does, then I’d avoid that food.  (Chemists would obviously have to modify that rule a bit. 😛 )  I haven’t completely given up all my processed foods yet, but I try to make sure that it has as short and readable an ingredients list as possible.  And you can bet that if the government didn’t require that label, they wouldn’t put any of it on that container.  We’d all have no idea what was in our food, and we’d be eating crap without knowing it.

So thank you, U.S. Government.  Thank you for getting at least one small thing right for the battle of Real Food.

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