As a whole-foods chef I strive to avoid packaged foods for the most part, but still buy a handful that are minimally processed, such as non-dairy milk, canned beans, and mustard. Even when buying minimally processed foods, however, I am continually reminded of how important it is to glance at the list of ingredients on the back of a package, even if it’s a brand or product you’re familiar with.
This point was driven home to me again last week as I stood in the grocery aisle in search of tomato paste. I found one I liked and had used before with just one ingredient: tomatoes. As I was putting it into my basket, I noticed a nearly identical can of tomato paste next to it, the difference being that it had the words “with Italian herbs” added to the front label. I was intrigued, so I turned the can around to read the ingredient list for which herbs in particular had been added.
And, here we go...
I couldn’t believe what I saw—as well as what I didn't see! What I thought may be just tomato paste with the addition of some basil, oregano and/or thyme was in reality something very different. The ingredient list had jumped considerably in length, but the kicker was—there was no mention of herbs anywhere.
After reviewing the ingredient list a few times, I decided to email the manufacturer to ask where the herbs were, and within an hour I got an answer. Kind of. I received the following response: "We consider the exact spice and natural flavoring ingredients to be proprietary information—part of our special recipe." Not the most satisfying answer.
This is yet another compelling reason to eat food as close to how nature made it as possible. You cannot ever know what's really in your food when it is packaged or prepared by a business, whether a food manufacturer or a restaurant. This is not to say all packaged foods and all restaurants are to be avoided, but because their goal is money and our goal is health, we should always stay curious, do our homework, and ask questions, even when they make it so easy for us not to.
Aside from the mysterious herbs, this can's long list of ingredients included many items that challenge the pursuit of good health, such as: high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, hydrolyzed corn gluten, soy and wheat gluten proteins, Romano cheese, milk, and salt.
Why would the food manufacturer add all these unnecessary ingredients to tomato paste? To save money somehow? Or maybe it's because manufacturers know that most consumers respond to getting more ("with Italian herbs"); that most consumers don't read labels; and that the addictive nature of sugar (corn syrup), fat (oil, cheese), and salt in their products keep customers coming back for more.
I also was curious to see if the two tomato pastes looked and tasted differently. They sure did! The tomato-only paste tasted just as you would think, tangy and tomato-like. The "herbed" paste tasted objectionable and smelled like baby food. The "herbed" paste had green specks in it, I presume to assure buyers they were getting their "Italian herbs." Although if they are really herbs at all is anyone's guess.
Next time you’re buying your favorite packaged food, take a look at the ingredient list; you may be surprised at what you find. Possibly a long list of substances you would not otherwise put into your mouth on purpose. Manufacturers also change their ingredients periodically, so check the ingredient list now and then, even if you think you know what’s in the product.
This is another example of how anything, even the simple tomato, can be turned into a junk food. Any food with a label deserves our attention. Why? Because the body is always paying attention to what’s going into it, even if we're not. Keep the following tips in mind next time you go shopping:
1. Read the ingredient list: Never buy a food based only on information provided on the front of the package; always turn it over and read the ingredient list.
2. Order is important: Ingredients are listed in descending order, starting with those used most to those used least (by weight). If you’re trying to avoid salt, for example, make sure it’s toward the very end the list, or better yet, buy salt-free products.
3. The fewer ingredients, the better: Buy packaged foods with as few ingredients as possible. I rarely buy anything with more than five ingredients, and most of the time I strive for just one or two (such as with canned tomatoes, canned black beans, or frozen strawberries, all which can be found with just one ingredient, and soy milk made with just soy beans and water).
4. Know what you're eating: If you don’t know what it is (i.e., hydrolyzed corn gluten) and/or do not find it occurring in nature (i.e., oil, high fructose corn syrup), it's best to avoid the product.
Getting into the habit of reading ingredient lists before you buy packaged foods can benefit your health greatly, and it only takes a couple seconds. I encourage you to become the investigator of your own food, and discover what’s behind the curtain!