On the plane back to Oakland from my brother’s Washington wedding, I couldn’t help myself — I was hungry! I flagged down a flight attendant and $7 later, all neatly packaged in front of me, I had breakfast: A can of Minute Maid cranapple juice and an adult “Lunchable” style meal with crackers, salami, cheese spread, dried apricots, and a cookie.
With all this packaged, processed food in front of me, I got to thinking — Who made this stuff? And what’s in it??
I’ve been trying lately to pay more attention to food labels and brands. I search for the loaf of bread with the least ingredients (and the most recognizable ones), I’m careful about buying juices that don’t have high fructose corn syrup, and I’ve been trying to educate myself on the unpronounceable ingredients — especially those that are soy derivatives (the last thing I want to do is support Monsanto, monoculture, or the government subsidies that encourage both).
I’ve also been trying to avoid buying products from companies I know do bad things to the environment and their workers (I mentioned Smithfield in my post about becoming a more thoughtful meat eater).
With a prepackaged box of snacks, I didn’t really have a choice on what I was getting — and hungry as I was, I didn’t feel like I had a choice about not ordering it either (I get cranky when I’m hungry!!). So I saved the packaging (except for the can) and vowed to do some research when I got home. Here’s what I found…
GoPicnic Ready-to-Eat Meals
I have to say, I was surprised — and to some extent impressed — by GoPicnic, the Chicago-based company that packaged my meal and sold it to Allegiant Air to sell to me. It’s a small company — all of 11 employees — it’s run by women, and they’re committed to providing food with no partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats), no high fructose corn syrup, and no added monosodium glutamate (MSG).
The company began when somebody realized airlines needed inexpensive, non labor intensive, shelf stable foods — at the time, airlines were losing money on food services. Now, they sell to a few large airlines (as well as general consumers) and have a fundraising program for schools and other groups to sell their meals.
It’s unclear from my research whether or not GoPicnic is owned by an airline or larger corporation, but they do seem to be making some nutritionally responsible efforts.
Old Wisconsin Beef Salami
Old Wisconsin Food Products Company is a subsidiary of Carl Buddig and Company, a privately traded meat processing and packaging company near Chicago. From what I can tell, Buddig is still family operated — Robert J. Buddig is the CEO. That does not, however, mean they are a socially responsible company. Meat packing plants are notoriously dangerous to work in, and Buddig itself was sued (and lost, paying out $2.5 million) in 2004 for discriminating against women and black people in hiring. You’re most likely to see their products in the lunch meat aisle — they sell super-thin-cut packaged lunch meats under the Buddig brand.
Ingredients: Beef, salt, dextrose, lactic acid starter culture, spices, garlic powder, sodium ascorbate, sodium nitrate.
I’ll skip the obvious ingredients — beef, salt, and garlic powder. We know what those are (though I’m curious to know more about the beef).
Lactic acid starter culture: According to one home-made salami recipe, adding “good” bacteria cultures helps prevent the growth of whatever bad bacteria happens to be in the ground beef. The culture produces lactic acid from the dextrose added to the meat, lowering the pH, and the increased acidity makes it hard for spoilage bacteria to grow.
Spices: Like “natural flavorings,” this one is rather mysterious. Spices in salami tend to include pepper, fennel seeds, and garlic. But in food labeling, this is also often a pseudonym for MSG. I can only assume GoPicnic is truthful when they say there is no added MSG in their foods, and that they’ve actually asked. (Apparently, MSG is often mislabeled in order to mislead consumers, so you really never know.)
Sodium Ascorbate and Nitrite: Studies (one in the news just yesterday) have linked consumption of sodium nitrite with cancer in children, adults, and pregnant women (in food, it spawns carcinogenic nitrosamines — this is why processed meats like ham, bacon, lunch meats, etc. should be avoided during pregnancy). Nitrite is loved by meat packers, though, because it preserves meat’s red color (otherwise packaged meats would be an unappetizing gray) and, arguably more importantly, it prevents growth of the bacteria that causes botulism — a prime reason it hasn’t been banned. Sodium ascorbate — or ascorbic acid (vitamin C) — is added because it helps prevent the formation of nitrosamines, reducing this problem. Regardless, the Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends avoiding nitrites whenever possible. Oops.
Late July Organic Classic Rich Crackers
Organic food on an airplane! That movement really has caught on, for better or for worse (perhaps one of these days I’ll do a post about my thoughts on this). Late July is a family owned company based out of a small town on Cape Cod. It was created by the same family that created Cape Cod Potato Chips (they sold that company to Anheuser-Bush in 1985, bought it back, and then resold it — and its $30 million in annual sales — to Lance, Inc. in 1999). From what I can tell, they still own Late July.
Ingredients: Organic wheat flour, organic evaporated cane juice, organic oleic safflower oil and/or organic oleic sunflower oil, organic palm oil, sea salt, leavening (baking soda, ammonium bicarbonate, cream of tartar), soy lecithin, enzymes.
Oleic oils: High oleic oils are those containing at least 80 percent monounsaturated fats. These are fats that may help lower cholesterol levels when they are used to replace saturated and trans fats (no magic bullet, just a better one). Sunflower oil is also high in vitamin E — safflower oil has none.
Ammonium bicarbonate: Pretty simple, this one is what the list says it is — a leavening agent. Your body uses it to balance the acidity levels of fluids and form nitrogen compounds. Excess is converted into urea and either peed or sweated out.
Soy lecithin: A soy derivative, this is a byproduct of soybean oil, extracted either mechanically or chemically (it’s also found in other plants and in eggs; food labels aren’t required to say what chemicals were used to extract it). High in choline — which some people take as a supplement for a healthy heart and brain — it’s used in many foods as an emulsifier. Emulsifiers prevent oils and water from separating (imagine if mayonnaise separated in the jar). It also helps make baked goods fluffier.
This one was harder to research — it’s an exclusive brand of GoPicnic, and I couldn’t find anything about where it’s produced.
Ingredients: All natural cheddar cheese (milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), water, cream, milk, whey, sodium phosphate, natural flavor, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes, sodium propionate, guar and xanthan gum.
Sodium phosphate: This compound is a cleaning agent, food additive, stain remover and degreaser (it’s also used orally before colonoscopies for bowel prep, though this comes with a risk of kidney damage). Who knew? In dairy products, it’s commonly used as an emulsifier.
Sodium propionate: This is a preservative, preventing the growth of molds. It is considered safe by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Guar and Xanthan gums: The Center for Science in the Public Interest notes that while most gums are considered safe, they’re also poorly tested. They’re used as thickeners and are not absorbed by the body (unless you believe the wives tale that gum sits in your stomach forever).
Mariani Ultimate Apricots
Though the apricots themselves are a product of Turkey (hardly local), they’re packed in processing plants pretty close to my backyard — Mariani is based out of Vacaville, Cali., and has five plants in the state. At least one of their plants runs on about 25 percent solar power, according to a press release on their website — I suspect that’s more than most food processors can say!
Ingredients: Dried apricots (product of Turkey), natural flavors, potassium sorbate.
Potassium sorbate: This additive is considered safe, it naturally occurs in many plants, and it’s used to prevent mold and yeast in cheese, dried fruits, wine, syrup, jellies, and cake.
Brent & Sam’s is a subsidiary of Lance, Inc. — since a merger with pretzel maker Snyder’s of Hanover this July, Lance is now the second largest producer of salty snacks in America behind Frito Lay. Publicly traded (their stock is trading at around $21 right now), their combined sales in fiscal year 2010 was $1.6 billion. (And they thought they could fool us with the cute small-business looking Brent & Sam’s logo…)
Ingredients: Semi-sweet chocolate chunks (sugar, chocolate liquor, anhydrous dextrose, cocoa butter, soya lecithin, vanilla), enriched wheat flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), sugar, brown sugar, invert sugar, palm oil, butter, whole eggs, raisin paste, fructose, molasses, rolled oats, soybean oil, pregelatinized starch, salt, baking soda, pure vanilla extract with other natural flavors, whey, cream of tartar, ammonium bicarbonate, vegetable monoglycerides, soy lecithin, natural butter flavor, citric acid, beta carotene, vitamin A palmitate.
Sheesh. Recognize a few of those? Did you also notice that sugars (in several forms) are on this list eight times?? (That includes the raisin paste, since raisins have natural sugars.) Writing up descriptions for all these unrecognizable ingredients would take up far too much space on this blog, so I’ll let you test your research skills. But — in Michael Pollan’s terms — this certainly isn’t a cookie your great grandmother would recognize as a cookie. Hers would have had butter, flour, sugars, egg, milk, baking soda, vanilla, and straight up chocolate chips. Cookie shopping tip: if you don’t feel like making your own, buy from a bakery instead of a box. The ingredients will look more like grandma’s — and taste more cookie-like than Brent’s.