I have a friend who says, “Food is just a way for the sauce.” Chips are just the way to the salsa, lettuce, a receptacle for dressing, and pasta, a means for marinara. While it might be true that good sauce often masks crummy food, it’s also true that great sauce can transform and unite good ingredients. My love for sauce—for dressings and condiments—is why I spend the extra $2 to buy artisan mustard at the Co-op; why I buy balsamic vinegar so well aged it becomes viscous and sticky.
Sauces and dressings are also swimming with surprise processes. High fructose corn syrup in mustard? You bet. Sugar in savory marinara sauce? Almost every time. Modified food starch in salad dressing? What do you think makes it so clingy?
Sugar is the number one processed culprit in sauces and dressings; you’ll often find it in sauces you wouldn’t think to be sweet (or want to be sweet), but it’s there nonetheless, hiding in wait to trick your tastebuds into delicious submission. Thickening agents, like guar or xanthan gum, follow quickly behind. In fact, almost all of the two dozen dressings and sauces I looked at—which ranged from ranch dressing to marinara sauce to mayo and mustard—contained some sort of gum.
Gums haven’t yet been proved to be harmful, but because they appear in so many foods of so many different varieties, the “innocent until proven guilty” paradigm that most of our food additives operate under doesn’t cut it for me.
From the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Chemical Cuisine: “Gums are derived from natural sources (bushes, trees, seaweed, bacteria) and are poorly tested, though probably safe. They are not absorbed by the body. They are used to thicken foods, prevent sugar crystals from forming in candy, stabilize beer foam (arabic), form a gel in pudding (furcelleran), encapsulate flavor oils in powdered drink mixes, or keep oil and water mixed together in salad dressings. Gums are often used to replace fat in low-fat ice cream, baked goods, and salad dressings. Tragacanth has caused occasional severe allergic reactions. The FDA warns against giving a product called SimplyThick, which contains xanthan gum, to infants, since it may cause a life-threatening condition called necrotizing enterocolitis. It is not clear whether the gum itself, bacterial contamination of the gum, or some other cause is to blame.”
Inglehoffer Honey Mustard
As a reminder, from the Food & Drug Administration, “The ingredient list on a food label is the listing of each ingredient in descending order of predominance.” So, the ingredients you see first are the ingredients that appear in greatest quantity (by weight) in a particular for. So, again, to be clear: The first four ingredients in this particular mustard are water, sugar, honey, and wheat flour. Then comes mustard seed. I’m not sure the purpose of adding xanthan gum after you’ve added your eggs, as they presumably serve the same purpose, but perhaps xanthan is just making the way for our trusty high fructose corn syrup (evidently the sugar and honey weren’t quite sweet enough).
Artisan’s Market Honey Porter & Chipotle Mustards
This is what mustard should look like. This is mustard you can make at home. I do not, because whoever makes this mustard is very good at what they do. I don’t actually use mustard on sandwiches much—I mix it with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar for the easiest salad dressing one might make. Alternatively, Bernstein’s Cheese & Garlic Italian Dressing just might be the most difficult you could assemble at home.
More from the FDA: “All retail products must list all ingredients that have a technical or functional effect in the finished product.” I’ve never quite understood why so many ingredient labels have breakout sections, lists of ingredients following the disclaimer, “Contains less than 2% of.” If it contains it, it contains it. Two percent of a food’s mass is not negligible–it is 1.8 entire meals of a month’s worth of eating.
Anyway. What stuck out to me on this label was not the anchovy (but what about the vegetarians?) but, ironically, the most common vegetarian meat replacement, hydrolyzed soy protein. Hydrolyzing soy is not a friendly process—it is not like fermenting soybeans into a block of tofu. Rather, it is more like boiling soy protein in tub of sulfuric acid, and then neutralizing the acidic result with sodium hydroxide.
According to the CSPI, hydrolyzed vegetable protein “consists of vegetable (usually soybean) protein that has been chemically broken down to the amino acids of which it is composed. HVP is used to bring out the natural flavor of food (and, perhaps, to enable companies to use less real food). It contains MSG and may cause adverse reactions in sensitive individuals.”
Hidden Valley Light Ranch Dressing
It is a rule that took me a very long time to learn: Just because a food is labelled “diet” does not mean it is good for you. In fact, it probably means just the opposite. Diet foods are, as a rule, highly processed, as it falls on food manufacturers to remove the fats and sugars we think are ruining our “diets” and replace them with something that tricks us into thinking we’re still getting the same deal. The same taste, the same mouthfeel. The same stick-to-your tongue creaminess.
Maltodextrin is basically sugar—the short chains of glucose molecules are used as a texturized in processed foods. The reason it is third on the ingredient list is probably because water and vegetable oil don’t have the same texture as cream. Hello, artificial color; hello, xanthan gum. And, hidden in plain sight, monosodium glutamate, or MSG.
From Chemical Cuisine (it’s worth reading the full entry): “Careful studies have shown that some people are sensitive to large amounts of MSG. Reactions include headache, nausea, weakness, and burning sensation in the back of neck and forearms. Some people complain of wheezing, changes in heart rate, and difficulty breathing. Some people claim to be sensitive to very small amounts of MSG, but no good studies have been done to determine just how little MSG can cause a reaction in the most-sensitive people… People who believe they are sensitive to MSG should be aware that other ingredients, such as natural flavoring, Torula yeast, and hydrolyzed vegetable protein, also contain glutamate.”
At first, this ingredient list seems pretty sensible. Water, tomatoes, wine. Mushrooms, beef stock, onion juice concentrate. Then: natural flavoring, yeast extract—which contains MSG—and, drumroll, caramel color.
Caramel color has gotten a lot of press as of late, mostly because the amount of caramel colored allowed (and therefore, used) in sodas have been shown to be, in the words of the World Health Organization, “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
From the CSPI: “Caramel coloring, when produced with ammonia, contains contaminants, 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole. In 2007, studies by the U.S. National Toxicology Program found that those two contaminants cause cancer in male and female mice and possibly in female rats. In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a division of the World Health Organization, concluded that 2- and 4-methylimidazole are ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans.’ Then, the State of California’s Environmental Protection Agency listed ammonia-caramel coloring as a carcinogen under the state’s Proposition 65. The state lists chemicals when they pose a lifetime risk of at least 1 cancer per 100,000 people. California warned that as of January 7, 2012, widely consumed products, such as soft drinks, that contained more than 29 micrograms of 4-methylimidazole per serving would have to bear a warning notice.”
Basically, the amount of caramel color making this simmer sauce such a deep, flavorful-looking color is, in all likelihood, not carcinogenic, and therefore, not require a warning label. But you know. Better safe, I say.
If you eat gluten-free, you’ll know that soy sauce is one of those “What the…?” products—a very un-bread like substance that contains wheat. It also contains, along with many juices and carbonated drinks, contains sodium benzoate. From the CSPI: “Manufacturers have used sodium benzoate (and its close relative benzoic acid) for a century to prevent the growth of microorganisms in acidic foods. The substances occur naturally in many plants and animals. They appear to be safe for most people, though they cause hives, asthma, or other allergic reactions in sensitive individuals.”
When I set out to look at sauces, I honestly had no idea I’d encounter so many vegetarian violations. Refined fish oil and pork gelatin? In Eating Right’s “healthy living” tomato basil marinara sauce? A vegetarian could be forgiven for overlooking this label.
Prego’s “Flavored with Meat” Marinara sauce is more typical, in that it is primarily made up of tomato puree, water, and sugar. Until you get into the $4 to $5 dollar range, most marinara sauces you’ll see come with added sugar. This is insane to me. The reason to eat tomatoes, in my mind—the reason to simmer them into thick sauce, to drench pasta with their essence—is because of how sweet they are already.
More great irony: This sauce, which heartedly proclaims its meat flavors, actually contains absolutely no meat.
Middle Earth Organics Organic Tomato & Porcini Mushroom Sauce
Don’t look so sad, Lady Marinara Sauce. I love your ingredient label. We’re going to go home to have a perfectly unprocessed bowl of whole wheat pasta with sauce!