Food Snob Chronicles — A brief study in absurdity

I’m a label reader.

Not just an ingredients reader. An entire label reader.

I notice whether something is labeled ‘naturally flavored,’ or ‘artificially flavored’ … or ‘naturally and artificially flavored.’ I see — almost immediately — that a product is Kosher, gluten- or trans fat-free, imported or ‘new label – same great flavor.’

Most labels tell a story. And some of those stories are worth further investigation.

The latest label (and advertising) for Hunt’s tomato products has piqued my curiosity more than any canned marketing in recent history. The Con Agra company claims that its tomatoes are peeled using Flash Steam®. Is this a proprietary method? Something new? I took to the telephone to find out.

‘Hi Emily. I’m calling you to find out about your Flash Steam that you are advertising on TV and on your cans,’ I greeted the nice lady who answered my call at Con Agra’s customer service department. ‘Can you tell me about this?’

‘Sure,’ she replied. ‘We steam our tomatoes to remove the skin. This helps us to avoid the use of lycopene — like other companies use.’

‘Lycopene?’ I inquired. ‘Isn’t that supposed to be good?’

‘Well, it’s a chemical,’ she replied. ‘We want people to know that we don’t use lycopene in the processing of our tomatoes.’

‘But, your competitors advertise on their labels that lycopene helps fight against cancer in men,’ I responded. ‘I never knew that it was used in the commercial peeling process. This is interesting.’

Emily then asked me if I had any additional questions.

‘Yes, I do. What type of chemicals are used in the field?’

‘Well, keep in mind that water is a chemical,’ Emily said. ‘I know that sounds strange, but it’s true.’

‘Sure,’ I responded. ‘H2O. I learned that in chemistry, but I’m talking about pesticides and such.’

‘We grow our tomatoes in California,’ she responded. ‘And, we do use water.’

‘But California has pests too,’ I said. ‘Do your growers use pesticide?’

If water is a chemical, then so is steam. Hunt's tomato products appear to have no more chemicals in them than their competitors'.

If water is a chemical, then so is steam. Hunt’s tomato products appear to have no more chemicals in them than their competitors’.

Emily couldn’t answer the question, so I didn’t press. In all fairness, she also eventually came around and corrected herself on the whole lycopene thing. (She wasn’t sure what her competitors use, but she assured me that it was bad.)

So, I began studying her competitors. Muir Glen, a purveyor of organic tomato products, also uses steam. The customer service line at Contadina, a Del Monte company, was closed. However, my research didn’t yield any evidence of chemical usage during the peeling process. Ditto on Red Gold. I not only did in-depth research into web-based documents, but also ran company products through Fooducate, my favorite nutrition app.

Vegetable oil: Made from fresh lettuces, cukes and peppers

Vegetable oil: Made from fresh lettuces, cucumbers and peppersYeah, right. The tiny ingredients list on the back of the container says 'soybean oil.' I feel duped.

Yeah, right. The tiny ingredients list on the back of the container says ‘soybean oil.’ I feel duped.

My wife tells me that this one’s a stretch — on my part.

Au contraire!

When I look at labeling on olive oil, I see olives. Canola oil labels have pretty little yellow flowers. Even my truffle oil shows a handful of truffles scattered about a flat surface.

Wife’s argument: The vegetable oil label shows a suggested way of serving it.

My retort: Why doesn’t vegetable oil show a migrant worker picking soybeans?

Farm fresh? Processed within hours? Really?

Farm fresh? How could I ever prove that wrong?

Farm fresh? How could I ever prove that wrong?

Canned vegetables are just that — stuffed in a metal container with water and sold with a two-year shelf life. Furthermore, canned veggies are cheap. Is this not why most people buy them — opposed to their fresh or frozen counterparts?

By no means is such a label a deal-breaker, but I’m thinking there’s a marketing department out there with way too much time on its hands.

Food label marketers aren’t the only ones doing it

lotionIntense repair? When I think ‘intense,’ I’m thinking about consecutive hours of push-ups, running and weight lifting — or countless hours on a therapist’s couch.

‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Reservoir Dogs’ are intense.  So is a well-flavored blood orange sorbet.

But, the only truly intense lotion that I know of is sold in the family planning section of the drugstore … or so I thought.

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So, I paid more than a meal’s worth of homage to my Irish brethren this week. And, I developed a new addiction in the process. Thanks a lot Saint Patrick! While the Reuben Rail Splitters (my own invention) are more German-American-Texan in nature (I used Nolan Ryan brand Smoked Sausage), the Colcannon pancakes are still pretty much Irish — sans boiling.

Reuben Rail Splitters

Reuben Rail Splitters and an addictive Colcannon redux.

Reuben Rail Splitters and an addictive Colcannon redux.

2 lbs – Kielbasa or Smoked Beef Sausage
Stone Ground Mustard

Sauerkraut, warmed
3 cups – Swiss or Smoked Provolone cheese, shredded
Spicy Louis Dressing

12 – Jewish, Russian or Pumpernickel Rye slices, toasted as desired

Preheat grill to medium-low.

Cook sausage
Slice sausage in half, lengthwise, then cut into 5-6 inch pieces (to fit on bread). Brush each piece with a liberal amount of stone ground mustard. Place on grill — skin side down — and cook for about 7-8 minutes. (Rearrange during grilling, as necessary, to provide even cooking.) Flip sausages so that the skin side is up. Turn off grill and close for about 3-4 minutes. Remove from grill.

Assemble sandwiches
Place about 1/4 cup of grated cheese on the bottoms of six bread slices. Top with sausages, then sauerkraut and Spicy Louis Dressing.

Serve with Colcannon pancakes. Makes six dinner-sized sandwiches.

Colcannon Pancakes

4 cups – Prepared Colcannon
2 – eggs
1/4 cup – All-purpose flour

Vegetable oil, for frying

Combine eggs and flour with prepared colcannon. Mixture should have a heavy batter-like consistency. Add a little water or flour, as necessary.

Heat about 1/2-inch of oil to medium-high in a large skillet.

Ladle about 1/4 cup of batter into hot oil. You might have to lightly flatten it somewhat with the base of the ladle. Repeat, being careful not to overcrowd the pan. Allow to fry until browning becomes visible around the outer bottom edges — about 3-4 minutes — then carefully flip, using a large spatula.

Place cooked pancakes on paper towels to absorb excess oil.

Makes about 16 (very addictive) Colcannon Pancakes.

Comments

  1. OK, I’m a label snob, too, and shopping trips turn into hours as I stand in the aisles reading the microscopic print, but thanks to the wonders of medicine and my new lens implants, I don’t even need peepers (that’s just an aside fyi!)…got good info, as usual, and love Fooducate…you’ve made me a happy camper this morning, darlin!! xo Ally

  2. I’m a label reader too. Your Reuben Rail Splitters look divine!!

  3. I simply LOVE that you called Con Agra. And for the very first time in my life I am very thankful I don’t work in the customer service dept where I may have to field your call. It probably wouldn’t go over well. I would be stuttering and stumbling all over the place.

    • You know, my wife and I were discussing that call and I was floored that the company didn’t have a fact sheet on growing conditions. We’re talking about Con Agra here! Catherine insists that they are using a call center. Still.. FYI – I’m a friendly guy when it comes to these calls. I even told Emily that I was super-excited about tasting their tomatoes. ;-)

  4. Oh dear, you’re reminding me of when I used to take my husband on grocery shopping trips. I’d be at the check out counter & he’d still be in aisle 2 reading every label. The man thought he was in the library. Now, the shopping is all his & I know it’ll be a couple of hours before he gets home. At least I explained to him that the ice cream should be the last thing he puts in the basket.
    You’ve created quite a sandwich for yourself there Adam. Grilled sausage…yes!

  5. Very funny. My husband will spends hours reading labels at the market. LIterally hours.

  6. This is great. Thanks for letting us know about Fooducate!

  7. Love the Fooducate website! Thanks for sharing!

  8. I read labels, all of them, as well. This was a great post. Another reason why I cook from scratch as much as possible. Don’t like being mislead! Though I just downloaded the Fooducate app and will be grocery shopping in a bit. :)

  9. Taking On Magazines says:

    I’m one of those weird people who love reading labels and all their misleadings and silly promises. I can’t believe the woman actually said lycopene is bad. As far as recall, tomatoes naturally produce the stuff (as do carrots), right? Ah well. It was good for a giggle. My most favorite sandwich is a Reuben. I sigh with hunger, want and envy at what’s on your plate.

  10. Funny… I just experimented with colcannon cakes. Yours turned out better!

    • Confession: My wife made mine. She’s had plenty more experience with (German) potato pancakes, so I put her in charge of the colcannon version while I made sauce, grilled sausages and toasted bread.

  11. “Intense Skin Repair”… *wince* That just sounds painful.

  12. I’m a rabid label reader, too. I ignore any and everything marked as “natural” – it applies to so many things nowadays it has no meaning. “Natural pork”, “natural fruit”, “natural honey”, “natural hairdye”.

  13. I hope you sent this post to Con Agra directly…

  14. I tend to be a painfully slow shopper when I get into the label reading.
    The Wife hates it when I start.
    Best,
    Conor

  15. This is exactly why my husband and son stay home when I do the grocery shopping. I read the labels, I compare, and I add as I go. Your sandwiches look delicious, although I’m a bad German & don’t like ‘kraut. My dad gives me crap about it every New Year’s when he’s dishing it up along with the pork roast! That said, I’d maybe eat a few of those colcannon cakes, though…I wonder how they’d be with some applesauce on the side….

  16. Wonderful post! I wanted to drop you a quick note to let you know that I have nominated you for two awards! My post can be found at: http://salmonfishingqueen.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/and-the-winner-is/
    Have a great day! I am going to read some labels now…

  17. David Phinney says:

    OK so there are a few things to be addressed here. Let me start by giving my words clout. My name is David Phinney (everyone calls me Phinney) and I have an undergraduate and M.S. in Food Science. I am now a research engineer at The Ohio State University in the Food Science & Technology Department. I have studied food processing/engineering for most of my career as a food scientist, as well as centered myself on brewing and fruit/veg processing. I have worked for a large Concentrate company as well as Del Monte Foods in process optimization and would say I know a decent amount about the subject matter. Now that that is out of the way lets dive in to this post.

    1: LYEcopene peeling
    One of two things happened here; either (a) there was a miscommunication in the conversation or (b) you really did just get a bad customer service person. I also ca not really come to grips with the fact that you might be so involved in your food and your labels that you did not understand her mistake and correct her. What she mean to say is that steam peeling allows them to avoid LYE (adding copene to this word makes it lycopene so I can maybe understand the confusion? But really I cant…) peeling, also known as “chemical” peeling (yes water is also a chemical… let’s just get past that). Lye and caustic peeling (synonymous in this day and age) use sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide which is a strong base (OH-). The free hydroxyl ion (OH-) reacts with pectin and cellulose (which give plants their structure and are concentrated in skin) degrading them and rendering them removable by light mechanical motion. I just told you that a “chemical” is used to peel many tomato skin prior to turning it in to dices, so why isn’t NaOH (sodium hydroxide) on the ingredients label? It is because caustic has been approved as a (legally defined) “processing aid.” Subsequent rinsing of the now peeled tomatoes ensures that the bulk of the caustic has been removed and therefore it does not need to be listed on the label. Do trace amounts still exist in the final product? Most definitely! But who’s to say that is bad? Sodium hydroxide has been federally agreed upon as a generally recognized as safe (GRAS) ingredient. Meaning that at levels where the compound is tolerable in flavor it poses no health risk to the consumer. Moral of the story and what your readersd should NOT TAKE FROM YOUR ARTICLE…

    Lycopene is absolutely not use din the peeling process for tomatoes. And from a processor’s standpoint this is comical to even hear.

    Now that we all know about lye, caustic, chemical peeling (all synonymous) let’s talk about steam peeling.

    Many of you have peeled tomatoes at home using the boiling water bath method correct? First you boil water, then you add tomatoes (not too many so the temperature does not drop I hope) and then you move them to an ice bath and once cooled the skins is removable. Steam peeling is this operation on steroids. In most steam peeling operation the tomatoes are blasted with 250F steam and then introduced in to a vacuum chamber that facilitates removal of the peel.

    So which is better? It Depends!

    I know all you purist will immediate point to steam peeling and say “no chemicals are used so it is better!” so let’s talk about the down sides of steam peeling first.
    1) Lowered yields. Now many of you think well that only affects the processor and how much money they would make, so tally one more up for steam! This is not the case and the view on waste and yields needs to be more important to you as the consumer. Low yield mean that more product is going to waste, and waste is a huge deal in our day and age. When a product is wasted on the first step of processing (peeling is pretty close to a first step), all the operations prior which have put “energy” in to that product are also wasted. For example all the gas that is used to apply pesticides, harvest, and haul the material was then all for not, and not to mention all the water that was used to grow that material being wasted as well.
    2) High energy consumption. The generation of culinary (or food grade) steam for use in a direct food contact operation both takes a lot of startup material (including a massive boiler) and a large amount of energy to heat. Imagine keeping a pressure cooker on the stove for 8-14 hours a day maintaining a 13 psi pressure at all times. What would that do to your electric bill? And let’s not forget that that electricity was generated (most likely) through operations that created greenhouse gasses.
    Caustic peeling also has its downsides as many of you would predict;
    1) Chemical carryover. It is possible that the caustic solution used for peeling con carryover in to the final product. But potassium and sodium are already ion foods and the hydroxyl group generally is reduced by an addition of a hydrogen to H2O, which even though is a chemical.. its not so bad.
    2) Effects on waterways. High pH caustic solution needs to be treated and dealt with before either bring reintroduced to the water system or released to a water reclamation facility. This adds a degree of difficulty to plant design and in some cases requires plants to put in water reclamation resources on site to deal with the waste solutions.
    In any case, neither of these methods is right or wrong… Just different. I encourage you all to go FURTHER than the label, being a “label reader” is not enough for you to be the educated consumer you need to be.

    -Phinney

  18. The customer service rep at ConAgra simply mis-spoke. The chemical used in peeling all other tomato products besides the Muir Glen & Hunt’s tomatoes is *lye* (also known as sodium hydroxide or caustic), not lycopene. The skin is chemically washed off (which then breaks down into water and salt) in those products. In the steam peeled versions, the skin is removed just as you would at home…by heating up the tomato in a pressurized container (with steam).

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