Last week I wrote about a lawsuit that's been brought by some consumers against the makers of almond milk. The plaintiffs didn't realize the product contained only 2 percent almonds. To me, the lawsuit was a reminder to be an educated consumer and mentioned that we have the responsibility to educate ourselves.
In the comments section, someone asked, "How can we 'beware' when we're not informed? How does one make good choices when one is denied information?"
I get that frustration. Sometimes we're denied that information. But often, information exists — just not clearly on the packaging itself. There may be clues that can lead us to the information, but we still need to do some digging to know exactly what's in a product. That's particularly true when it comes to processed foods that imitate more natural foods. Looking at the ingredients list and some of the information on the front of the packaging helps, but it takes deeper research to understand the differences.
Here are five foods that have a natural version and a version that's not as pure as the original.
Cheese vs. processed cheese product
It may look like cheese and it may taste like cheese, but the FDA says this slice can't be called cheese. (Photo: Adam Kuban/Flickr)
There's a difference between natural cheese and those plastic wrapped cheese-like single slices that melt so nicely in grilled cheese or on burgers. Those singles are known as pasteurized process cheese food. Cheese is basically milk (usually cow, goat or sheep), enzymes, cultures and often salt. Other types of cheese-like products like Velveeta, Cheez Whiz or Kraft Singles, can't be labeled cheese. They must be labeled as a "cheese product" or "pasteurized process cheese." They contain cheese, or cheese ingredients, but they aren't cheese.
Pasteurized process cheese food, according the FDA, is made by comminuting (that means reducing it into minute particles) and mixing cheese ingredients, dairy ingredients, and optional other ingredients such as emulsifying agents, acidifying agents, water, salt, "harmless" artificial coloring, spices and other flavorings. They are heated together until they form a "homogeneous plastic mass."
And what about American cheese that's sold in the deli? Is that natural cheese or is it pasteurized process cheese food? It's called cheese. When it's on a menu behind the deli counter, it says "American cheese." It is, however, pasteurized process cheese. If you were to look at the packaging that's wrapped around American cheese before it's removed so the cheese can be sliced, it will say "pasteurized process" on it.
Maple syrup vs. pancake syrup
Unless the menu said 'pure maple syrup,' there's a good chance that the syrup on these pancakes has no maple in it. (Photo: Alfaro Matxalen/Flickr)
Maple syrup is the sap from certain types of maple trees that has been boiled into a syrup. It's pure with no additives. Because it's labor-intensive to collect, pure maple syrup is expensive. What's known as pancake syrup is made to look like and taste like maple syrup, but it doesn't contain any maple sap. Aunt Jemima Original Syrup contains corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, water, cellulose gum, caramel color, salt, natural and artificial flavor, sodium benzoate and sorbic acid (preservatives) and sodium hexametaphosphate.
You'll find that syrups like Aunt Jemima, Hungry Jack or Log Cabin don't use the word "maple" on their labeling. They can't because there's no maple in it. Because they are so much less expensive than pure maple syrup, they are what most restaurants provide for pancakes. These are also the brands that many people use in their homes.
And one note about maple syrup: The way it's labeled changed earlier this year. There are new U.S. standards for grades of maple syrup. Instead of grade A maple syrup and grade B maple syrup, there are now only grade A syrups differentiated by color: grade A golden, grade A amber, grade A dark, and grade A very dark. It seems that under the old grading standards, people believed that grade B syrup was of lower quality than grade A syrup, when in fact grade B just meant it was darker. According to Forbes, color "varies largely based on weather, with sap from the same tree capable of producing different colors and thus different grades from one day to the next — or even within a single boiling run of the same sap."
Peanut butter vs. peanut spread
Read your labels carefully. Even natural peanut butter can be labeled as peanut butter spread instead of peanut butter. (Photo: Mike Mozart/Flickr)
Peanut butter must be made from 90 percent peanuts and can only include a stabilizing ingredient (like oil) and seasoning (usually salt). Peanut butter can be made from blanched or unbalanced peanuts, but if the peanut butter is made from unbalanced peanuts, the label must indicate that it was made with the skins of the peanuts. The FDA is very specific about how that's indicated:
Such statement shall appear prominently and conspicuously and shall be in type of the same style and not less than half of the point size of that used for the words "peanut butter." This statement shall immediately precede or follow the words "peanut butter," without intervening written, printed, or graphic matter.
Peanut spread is used for products containing less than 90 percent peanuts, often the low-fat versions. To remove the fat, the spreads have to remove the peanuts and replace them with ingredients like corn-syrup solids, molasses, salt, and hydrogenated oils, according to Real Simple. Read peanut butter labels carefully. Some of the "natural" peanut butters that don't have to be refrigerated are actually peanut butter spreads because of the type and the amount of oils used in them.
Ground beef vs. hamburger
Is this ground beef or hamburger? That depends on where the fat in the meat came from. (Photo: David Smart/Shutterstock)
It turns out, there's a difference between "a hamburger" and "hamburger." A hamburger is a sandwich made from a cooked patty of beef placed in a bun. It can be made out of hamburger or ground beef — and there is a difference.
The USDA says that both ground beef or hamburger can have seasonings, but no water, phosphates, extenders or binders added. They both may also contain up to 30 percent fat, but where that fat comes from matters. The fat in ground beef has to come from the cut of beef being ground up itself. The fat in hamburger may be added from some other source of beef.
Crab vs. imitation crab
If you've ever cracked open a crab and pulled out the meat, you know crab meat doesn't look like this. This is imitation crab, and it's nutritionally inferior to crab. (Photo: Banprik/shutterstock)
There's nothing that can truly imitate real crab meat, but real crab meat is very expensive. Imitation crab can take its place in some dishes, but it's not made with any kind of crab. Imitation crab is made from something called surimi. Surimi is technically seafood, but the FDA allows it to be made from "minced fish meat (usually pollock), which has been washed to remove fat and undesirable matter (such as blood, pigments and odorous substances), and then mixed with cryoprotectants (such as sugar or sorbitol) to improve its frozen shelf life." It's nutritionally inferior to crab and must be labeled imitation crab meat.
This fake crab meat can be compared to a fish hot dog. Processed fish myofibrillar proteins are formed into a paste with other ingredients to create a sturdy gel. ("Sturdy gel" sounds about as appetizing as the "homogeneous plastic mass" the FDA calls pasteurized process cheese, doesn't it?). It "is mass-manufactured, highly processed, and includes a bevy of artificial ingredients that make it a far cry from the food-thing formerly known as fish."
So there you have it: A quick primer on processed foods. Consider this your first lesson in becoming a better educated food consumer.
Related on MNN:
- Maple syrup fraud and how to avoid it
- What's the difference between GMO foods and hybrid foods
- Food fraud: 10 counterfeit products we commonly consume