When I went to Walmart the other day to research for their new price matching program, I noticed something that I just couldn’t ignore. Among probably 50 or so different varieties of cheese in the dairy section there was one that was called “Cheddar Melt” that was cheaper than all of the rest. Cheaper is always great, so long as you getting a quality product you can make use of. However, as a person who works in regulations, I know that everything that the government regulates has a definition. That means that someone cannot dye a piece of tofu yellow and call it Cheddar; cheddar has federally-enforceable attributes that any product who labels itself as such has to meet. Now you can see my concern. Why would this product have to call itself “Cheddar Melt” instead of just plain old “Cheddar”?
Consumers have seen these types of products over the years, the type that are close to the real thing with catchy names concocted to mislead. Some of these products have done so well in fact, that their shelf space is unquestioned…even if they are really not food in the truest sense of the word. If you look at the ingredient label of Cool Whip you will see milk, but mostly you will see all kinds of crazy ingredients whipped together. “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” is another one of these successful products after its campaign in the 90s with Fabio.
What appears to be different is the sheer volume of imitation food that passes muster because it’s cheap in a rough economic time. I know I was shocked with what I found. Check out some of the worst offenders below.
Peanut Butter Vs. Peanut Spread
Peanut Spread is federally defined as a product where more than 10% of the ingredients are not peanuts. I bought one of these Peanut Spreads (Peter Pan) for just $2.19 (a normal jar of peanut butter of equal size was $2.34, Skippy). In smaller font under the label “Peanut Spread” it states that it is “60% peanuts”. Some of the “other” ingredients include corn syrup solids and hydrogenated vegetable oils. It should be noted that there is an asterisk after the corn syrup solids and soy protein concentrate ingredients; the footnote says “Ingredients not in regular peanut butter.”
Cheese Vs. Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product
Paul is a cheese monster. The man can take out a 1 lb. brick in three days’ time; thank goodness his cholesterol is still normal. About a year after moving in together I started to moan and groan about the $10 we were spending on cheeses every week. He agreed that it was a lot of money to spend on cheese, so the next time he went to the grocery store he brought back some weird forms of cheese-wannabes as a solution. These cheeses were detestable! From then on out we made a rule that no matter the extra expense, we only wanted real cheese in our home or no cheese at all. You’ll see why below.
Processed cheese—they come individually packaged with plastic and tend to peel onto your sandwich or you can squirt them into your mouth from a spray can—was introduced to the market in the 1950s as a cheaper and uniform alternative to regular cheese (envision rows and rows of 1950s homes that all look alike). It also has an extended shelf-life, resistance to separation when cooked, and a uniformity of product. Its very nature allows manufacturers to incorporate a variety of less expensive ingredients, such as unfermented dairy ingredients, emulsifiers, extra salt, food colorings, or whey. For $1.33 I was able to purchase 8 slices of Borden’s “Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product”. First ingredients were “Milk [hurrah!], whey, and skim milk…”
Perhaps you have grown up on American cheese sold in those individually packaged pieces and you see nothing wrong with it. Well, it appears that manufacturers have taken this a step further. For $0.99, I was able to snag 12 slices of something called Sandwich-Mate Singles…aka “imitation pasteurized process cheese food”. The first few ingredients include “water, interesterified soybean oil, food starch-modifed, whey, [and] gelatin.” American Choice sells 16 individually packed “Imitation American Pasteurized Process Cheese Food” for $0.99 as well. Their ingredient list is just as disgusting.
Finally, what is that “Cheddar Melt” product I found in Walmart that spurred a two-hour shopping trip at the grocery store and this article? Legally, softer and alternative cheese products cannot be labeled as ‘cheese’ in the United States. This is why we are seeing things like “cheese food”, “cheese snack”, “cheese spread”, or “cheese product” on packages in the cheese aisle. The package of “Cheddar Melt” I purchased contains pasteurized process American cheese as well as a slew of other ingredients which is why it cannot be labeled as just cheese.
Cereal Vs. Sweetened Chocolatey Squares
Is it just me or has cereal become merely a vessel for holding as much sugar, fudge, and fiber as possible (I’ll admit, I had a fetish with Cinnamon Toast Crunch as a kid)? As long as manufacturers inject the vitamins and minerals into the formula then we’re all happy, right? I found something quite disturbing when perusing the cereal aisle. Most boxes were labeled “rice cereal”, “corn cereal”, or “rice and corn cereal”. However, I found a new product by Cocoa Puffs called Brownie Crunch that does not have “cereal” in the label. It is labeled as “Naturally and Artificially Flavored Sweetened Chocolatey Squares.” Oddly enough, it does get the mom-approved “Whole Grain Guaranteed” at the top of the box from General Mills.
Most everyone wants to get the real thing. Some have food allergies, especially to dairy, and so alternatives are useful to them. But who would rather have Cheddar Cheese Product than Cheddar Cheese or Cheese Snack? Because of this demand for ‘the real thing’ on top of the demand for cheaper products, manufacturers have spent billions of dollars marketing these products to us. And they’ve done a stellar job at convincing us to not look into the labels.
They’ve done this by housing the imitation products right next to or in the midst of the real products. Since there are now hundreds of choices to make in each food type, we all tend to assume that we are looking at variations of the same thing. Secondly, food manufacturers have altered their labels in sneaky ways. Written into the Code of Federal Regulations I found this, “In the past it has been the practice of some manufacturers to subordinate the words ‘‘pasteurized,’’ ‘‘blended,’’ ‘‘process,’’ ‘‘food,’’ and ‘‘spread’’ to give undue prominence to the word ‘‘cheese’’ and to words naming the variety of cheese involved.” It goes on to explain that all words labeling the product need to be given equal prominence. Manufacturers use the same name as the product we are all familiar with, but then add a second name so that they are complying with the federal regulations. In other words, if you see a second word after the main food type on a label and the product is less expensive than others, you should be asking yourself why.
To Donate or Not to Donate?
I absolutely hate to waste food. Typically when I do food experiments and come home with food that we will not eat (usually for the sheer volume), I donate it to the local food bank. This grocery trip I brought home $89.74 of almost entirely crap. If I am not willing to feed this to myself or to my family, how can I donate it to others? Do I really want to give people a concoction of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, high fructose corn syrup, and gelatin?
In the end I sifted through the riffraff and chose about half of the products to donate. I figure if you are hungry, then eating something is better than eating nothing.