Tag Archives: formulation

A formulation or formula is a fixed set of ingredients standardized by weight and percentage to consistently make a food item. Food product developers and manufacturers use formulas. See ingredient, recipe, additive, ULTRAPROCESSED.

Can fortification make ultra-processed foods healthy?

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

This POST cereal proclaims it’s healthiness in every possible way.

This cereal qualifies for a Whole Grain Stamp and a nutrient content claim as a good source of fiber. The Heart Healthy ❤️ appeals to an older generation whereas the nonGMO butterfly will appeal to a younger generation. The whole raisins, dates, and pecans pictured on the box are really there when you open the box and look inside.

And this cereal is an ultra-processed industrial formulation. The whole grain oats are rolled & polished. The whole grain wheat looks to have been pulverized then formed into “clusters”, probably with the help of an extruder. Both rolling and pulverizing theoretically impact the grain’s food matrix which in turn can impact rate of absorption and digestion. And as with other functional foods, the cereal lists an array of micronutrients including vitamin B12, a vitamin not naturally found in cereal products.

So just how healthy is this carefully formulated, extensively certified, micronutrient fortified ultra-processed breakfast cereal? That’s a really good question and the answer depends on how you think about healthy.

For the last 30 years, healthy has been equated to nutrients so consumers have gotten used to thinking that nutrients are the only measure. If healthy = nutrients, the cereal is healthy. So I’m asking myself, are we actually in the presence of a healthy ultra-processed product?

The science as reflected by the certifications, the claims, and the extensive fortification certainly suggest that we are. But when I ask my gut, I get a different answer.

Compared to my usual breakfast, this cereal just doesn’t cut it. My usual breakfast is a couple slices local artisan whole wheat bread, jam or butter, café au lait, a handful of nuts, and I’m fine until lunch. Even a big bowl of this cereal with milk however doesn’t hold me until say mid-morning.

My usual breakfast clocks in around 430 calories. The Great Grains breakfast is a little higher around 450 calories. All I can do is speculate at this point, but here’s what I’ve come up with:

• My artisan whole wheat bread is made with coarsely ground hard wheat flour. It’s likely that the particle size of the grain is larger that the whole wheat flour used to make the Great Grains clusters. Is the difference in particle size important?

• My usual breakfast has more water. About 80% of the total weight is water. Milk and coffee are fluids and bread is about 40% water. The dry cereal is of course “dry”. Even with the addition of milk, the meal is about 45% water. The volume of water impacts the calorie density and my usual breakfast is less calorie dense (calorie density = kcal/gram). Is the lower calorie density a factor?

The opposite ends of the ultra-processed spectrum.

photo credit | gourmetmetrics | my picture is neither an endorsement nor a product placement

Yellow pea is all the rage. Commodity brokers are taking bets. Plant-based product developers are placing large orders. Farmers are increasing acreage. So what’s all the fuss about? Why you may be asking is the humble field pea suddenly in high demand? Because of these two simple facts. Yellow pea is 23% protein. And it’s not soy.

Beyond Meat is made with yellow pea. It’s listed as pea protein on the label and is the second ingredient (the first ingredient being water). Pea protein isolate is what’s left after fat and carbohydrate (fiber) have been removed.

Golden Lentil Indian Dal, pictured above, is also made with yellow pea. It’s listed as yellow split pea on the label and is also the second ingredient list after water.

What’s truly astonishing, to me at least, is the ingredient lists for these two products start with exactly the same two ingredients. It’s the ingredients that follow which determine the respective position of each product within the ultra-processed group and places the two products at opposite ends of the spectrum.

The ingredients in the soup are similar to the ingredients I use in my homemade lentil soup – extra virgin olive oil, aromatics, spices, salt. Each retains its integrity with minimal disruption to the matrix and reflects the culture and traditions of Central Asia – yellow split peas, garlic, onion, ginger, coriander, turmeric, and red chili pepper.

Not so for the burger. What follows the water and pea protein is a list of 20 plus deconstructed, reduced, and fragmented components which are then reconstructed to look, feel, taste, and smell like beef. The only ingredient on the list that I count as an intact food is water.

Both products are industrial formulations (read ultra-processed) but the burger is at the most heavily processed end of the spectrum whereas the dal is at the other end of the spectrum. Both are ultra-processed but there are major differences.

The question I’m asking is how much does it matter?

Yikes! My favorite cookies have no nutrition facts label!

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

photo credit | gourmetmetrics.

Pictured above are my favorite oatmeal raisin cookies. Let’s call them the next best thing to freshly baked. Each little package is processed for local distribution with a list of ingredients but, on closer examination, you’ll notice something is missing.

All manufacturers are required to label products. But only some manufacturers are required to add nutrition facts. When a package of cookies like this one is sold without a nutrition facts label, it means the production batch is small.

So I started thinking, do I really need to know the nutrition stats for these very tasty cookies?

We already know cookies are calorie dense. Most cookies are 400 to 500 calories per 100 grams / 110 to 140 calories per ounce. I weighed the cookies from the package pictured above. The results – a serving size of one cookie (about 45 grams / 1.5 ounces) clocks in at 200 calories plus / minus 50.

We already know cookies are indulgent. The basic formulation is always the same no matter if the cookies are freshly baked with your grandmother’s recipe or turned out in massive numbers using industrial processing and technology. That formulation is flour, sugar, and fat. Most folks don’t need a label to tell them cookies are high in fat and sugar and calorie dense.

We always have an ingredient list. The cookies pictured above are made from organic wheat flour, brown sugar, butter, raisins, oats, eggs, salt, vanilla extract, baking powder, baking soda. It’s a clean list of quality ingredients with oats being a good source of fibers. Butter instead of less expensive palm or canola oil. Brown sugar instead of dextrose or high fructose corn syrup. No gums or emulsifiers to improve the texture. No preservatives to keep the cookies shelf stable for years so eat quickly or store in the freezer. 

So you see there’s a lot we can do using common sense and an ingredient list. Our nutrition facts label serves manufacturers and analysts well, but it’s not consumer friendly. Most countries have experimented with various formats, symbols, graphics but, in my observation at least, no one has found an optimal approach. I like to think of nutritional labeling as a work in progress. In the meantime, a little common sense goes a long way.

It’s always okay to consult your gut.

 

Consult your gut is a good food rule. Usually the context of the rule is to choose smaller portions, but it’s applicable to many other situations. Like my gut and the Boca Burger.

Boca Burger made its debut in 1978. The burger in its original formulation was around for a long time before Kraft-Heinz reformulate and rebranded the item in 2018. The goal was to modernize the image and appeal to the vegan market.

The product qualifies as a bonafide ultra-processed industrial formulation. The ingredient list includes mostly substances / additives and no recognizable intact food. The tomato slice and lettuce leaf are recognizable but no part of the product. As for that green stuff, your guess is as good as mine, but what ever it is, it’s still not part of the product.

There may be a couple of Boca Burgers in your freezer right now. If your gut responds well to Boca, it’s not a bad choice. The burgers are ubiquitous and reasonably priced. The additives are considered safe and allowed for human consumption by the FDA. The Boca Burger is low fat as compared to a ground beef burger. So as long as your gut is happy eating Bocas, go for it!  If your gut gets a little queasy, however, like mine does, it’s also okay to say no thanks.

Just because an additive is safe doesn’t mean the substance sets well in everyone’s gut. My gut is unhappy with one of the substances. Is it the soy protein concentrate? Or perhaps the modified cellulose, the wheat gluten, the hydrolyzed wheat protein, or the natural flavor? Or perhaps it’s simply that my gut is not used to metabolizing substances that only come from time to time?

What ever the reason, it’s still okay to say no thanks. Trusting your gut is just common sense and there’s nothing wrong with good old fashioned common sense.

Would your great grandmother have eaten an Enchilada?


photo credit | gourmetmetrics
photo credit | gourmetmetrics

My great grandmother would be flabbergasted if she could see what I had for dinner last night. She was born in Maine, ate cod fish cakes, baked beans, meat, and potatoes. Mexican food was as foreign to her as salt cod is to me.

Moreover my great great grandmother might actually have appreciated the convenience of dinner in 45 minutes although unfamiliar ingredient like tortillas and black beans might take her some time to get used to.

This dinner is clearly an industrial formulation. How do I know? Because this dinner is my fall back when life conspires and I don’t have time to shop or cook. I’ve taken the short cut enough times to know the product will taste exactly the same every single time.

Checking the label, you’ll find there are 65 words, 20 ingredients, and the word organic is used 16 times. One could quibble about expeller expressed canola oil because it’s still an RBD (Refined, Blanched, Deodorized) seed oil.  Or prefer flour to the more refined tapioca starch. But as an example of a well written clean label, I think it’s an exemplary example with no dirty little secrets that I can find. So I’ll say, in all due respect to Michael Pollan, 20 ingredients instead of 5 works okay for me.

Nutrients are balanced with moderate levels of sodium and respectable amounts of fiber and protein. So again, in all due respect, it’s possible at least in my opinion to use the tools of modern food technology to make a product with some whole food (black beans,  corn kernels, tortilla) and balanced nutrition. Will everyone agree that home made enchiladas taste better? I don’t know. I am pretty sure, however, that many folks would be unwilling to spend time & trouble to make this Mexican standby at home.

Processed or Ultra-Processed?

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

The best lasagna I ever ate was home made. Even the pasta! 100 grams durum semolina flour and 1 egg, diligently hand mixed, kneaded, then rolled into thin sheets with this cool little pasta machine I brought back from Rome one year. Pelati, canned whole peeled Italian tomatoes, olive oil, some garlic and onion, fresh basil and parsley, gently boiled down into a traditional marinara sauce. Fresh ricotta cheese. A mixture of ground beef and pork browned and seasoned. Layer by layer all that deliciousness was carefully arranged in my pan and baked to perfection in the oven. It was incredibly delicious! 

My home made masterpiece was a spontaneous event. I don’t even remember following a recipe although I had a general idea of ingredients before I set out. But I’ll never do it again. Why? Because the process took one whole day!

When I serve a lasagna these days, my choices are store prepared or store bought off the shelf. I’ve had good lasagnas, but I’ve never found a replacement that matches the taste of that lasagna I made myself. Not at least until recently …

Rao’s Made for Home, the same folks who produce a wicked good Marinara sauce, has gone into the frozen entrée business and one of their offerings is Meat Lasagna. 

Pre-prepared meal entrées are often disappointing because they are ultra-processed formulations of inferior ingredients intended to displace real food. Convenient yes. Delicious no. Never as good as the dish they intent to replace. But hope springs eternal, especially after a year of pandemic isolation, so I decided to give it a try. 

What a pleasant surprise!

What truly amazed me was the quality of the pasta. The taste and consistency of those sheets of lasagna actually reminded me of that lasagna I made by hand. It’s an amazing accomplishment because Rao’s Made for Home lasagna is a manufactured product, so by definition it’s both an industrial formulation and ultra-processed. Or is it ultra-processed?

INGREDIENTS

The ingredient list reads like a recipe for home made lasagna: Italian Whole Peeled Tomatoes (Tomatoes, Salt, Basil Leaf), Ricotta Cheese, (Milk [Whole & Skim], Vinegar, Salt), Pasta (Durum Semolina), Water, Beef, Mozzarella (Pasteurized Part Skim Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes), Pork, Romano Cheese (Pasteurized Cow’s Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes), Onions, Olive Oil, Egg, Salt, Spices, Garlic, Onion Powder, Garlic Powder. 

The ingredients are recognizable. And the label is beyond clean because no additives of any kind are listed. What isn’t on the label is as significant as what is. No modified corn starch, no natural flavor, no carrageenan, no gums. No messy additives to clean up!

The ingredients are top quality. Whole peeled Italian tomatoes are listed instead of tomato paste or purée. Fresh ricotta cheese instead of dry curd cottage cheese. And olive oil instead of canola or soybean oil.

Bronze cut does not appear in the ingredient list but the words can be found on the back of the box on the right panel. “Snuggled between every layer of bronze cut pasta …”. Those words bronze cut pasta are significant and may explain why the Rao’s lasagna reminded me of my hand rolled sheets.

Pasta has been made in Italy since the 13th century, but up until recently it was mixed and cut by hand. Manufacturers today use an industrial process called extrusion. The dough is mixed then forced through a mold or “die” which forms the familiar shapes we find on the grocers shelf: orecchiette, penne, lasagna. Most modern producers coat their dies in Teflon producing a smooth shinny pasta. Using bronze is the traditional method but its use fell out of favor because Teflon is cheaper. 

NUTRITION

Using current nutrient reductionist criteria, lasagna is not a healthy choice. Whether frozen and re-heated, served at the Olive Garden, or prepared at home with hand rolled lasagna sheets and carefully sourced ingredients, lasagna gets classified as “empty calories”. Too many grams of saturated fat and too many milligrams of sodium. 

There are other ways to think about what’s healthy and widen the focus however. Like ingredient quality. Or degree of processing.

TASTE

So why does the Rao’s lasagna remind me of my home made lasagna. Maybe it’s because of the whole peeled tomatoes or the fresh ricotta? Or maybe the bronze cut sheets of lasagna? Or maybe the olive oil? It’s not cold-pressed extra-virgin, but at least the oil is pressed or centrifuged from olives instead of rape seed or soybeans. 

Because taste is 100% subjective, I don’t know if you would like the lasagna as much as I did but two facts are indisputable. The lasagna is made with quality ingredients. And it costs twice as much as its competitors. 

SO IS RAO’S LASAGNA  PROCESSED OR ULTRA-PROCESSED?

There’s an argument to be made for either side. As per this 2019 commentary:  Ultra-processed foods are not ‘real food’. As stated, they are formulations of food substances often modified by chemical processes and then assembled into ready to consume hyper palatable food and drink products using flavours, colours, emulsifiers and a myriad of other cosmetic additives. 

The product is a formulation that is industrially made and mass produced. That’s why the product will taste exactly the same every single time. These are characteristics it has in common with Twinkies, Oreos, and Doritos.

However, the ingredients are real food. I’m being subjective here, but I don’t see the ingredients listed on the label as food substances. Or as Michael Pollan puts it “food-like” substances. Rao’s lasagna uses precisely the ingredients that I would use to make lasagna at home. No additives needed. No flavors, colors, emulsifiers, or any other cosmetic ingredients. Just real food.

I want to classify the product as processed because the taste is clean and the list of ingredients is simple and straightforward. But I can’t ignore the technological sophistication which guarantees that taste will be consistent in every box. So there you have it. Is Rao’s meat lasagna processed or ultra-processed? It all depends …

Bottom line, there are some wrinkles in the NOVA food classification system which will be need to be ironed out.

Where’s the Apricot?

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

My favorite dried apricots are moist, flavorful, sweet, and the color of rusty golden brown. A perfect balance to a handful of dry roasted unsalted nuts.

Dried apricots are whole fruits with the water removed. They are flat, but still recognizable as apricots. Some products, like my favorite KIND bar, list apricots as an ingredient but when you open the package and look for the apricot, all you find is gooey sticky stuff.

That observation inspired this month’s post. Minimally processed versus ultra-processed. My favorite KIND bar versus a handful of dried apricots and nuts.

INGREDIENTS

Minimally processed dried apricots come in two colors. Rusty golden brown and vibrant orange. Most commercial dried apricots have been treated with sulfur dioxide, an additive that lightens the color, softens the texture, and extends shelf life. I prefer the darker color, however. They are harder to find but the taste is more complex and nuanced.

A dried apricot, whether sulphured or un-sulphured, still looks like an apricot. There’s an argument to be made that sulphured apricots are ultra-processed, but un-sulphured apricots clearly meet NOVA guidelines for minimally processed food.

My choice of nuts to compliment the apricots is whole dry roasted unsalted mixed nuts (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, macadamia). Ingredient count is 2 to 6 depending on if you count the mixed nuts as a single ingredient or if you count each kind of nut as a separate ingredient.

My KIND bar has more ingredients. Lots more ingredients. Listed in descending order by weight, I count 13: peanuts, almonds, glucose syrup, honey, apricots, sultana, rice flour, dates, flax seed, soy lecithin, sugar, sea salt. Two of these ingredients count as markers of ultra-processing:  glucose syrup and soy lecithin.

I can also see pieces of nut. But where is the apricot?

All I can see is that sticky gooey stuff holding the nut pieces together. The technical name for the sticky gooey stuff is a slurry and the slurry in my KIND bar must be a combination of purée fruits (apricots, sultanas, dates), added sugars, some starch, and an emulsifier.

Please don’t think I’m picking on the daring of the healthy snacking crew. A KIND bar is one of my favorite ultra-processed foods. When I’m on the run, it’s the first thing I reach for. KIND is also the company that successfully challenged the FDA’s criteria for healthy when the company filed a Citizen Petition back in 2015.

NUTRIENTS

Both the bar and the fruit & nuts are energy dense.

• 4.5 calories per gram for the KIND bar (10% water). An individually wrapped bar that weighs 40 grams clocks in at 180 calories.

• 4.2 calories per gram for a handful of dried un-sulphured apricots & mixed nuts (24% water). One handful of an equivalent weight of dried apricots and mixed nuts clocks in at 168 calories.

Both have similar nutrient profiles. KIND has a few more grams of protein; my handful of apricots and nuts a few more grams of fiber.

Both have an equally favorable fatty acid ratio.

TASTE

The KIND Fruit & Nut bar is dense and chewy. Peanut predominates and I can taste that sweet, fruity slurry. I can’t however taste or see an apricot.

An un-sulphured apricot, a pecan, and a walnut half are also dense but not as chewy or sticky or sweet as the bar. The nuts add crunchy, the sweetness is softer, more nuanced, and clearly apricot.

BOTTOM LINE

The price of a KIND bar varies significantly. The bar I used for taste comparison cost $1.50 at my local supermarket. An equivalent weight for a handful of un-sulfured apricots and mixed nuts is about $1.00.

A handful of fruit and nuts is a great snack to have in your pocket because it requires no refrigeration. But it does require planning and some prep time. KIND bars are ubiquitous and available everywhere.

The taste difference between the bar and a handful of nuts and apricot is dramatic. Which tastes better? That’s a question best left to the eater. Taste is 100% subjective, so the only person you can make that decision for is yourself.

Twinkie Addendum

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

 

A couple of threads fell into place recently as I continue to explore the NOVA food classification system. And that send me out looking for Twinkies.

The first thread came by accident. I found myself listening to a previously recorded presentation at Google headquarters in California by New York based writer, editor, and publisher Steve Ettlinger. He was in California discussing his book, Twinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats. Published in 2007, the book is a fascinating exploration of the multitude of weird, unrecognizable ingredients used in modern food processing. 

The second thread fell into place when I discovered a recipe for homemade Twinkies does actually exists. About a decade ago, Jennifer Schihauser, a NYT journalist, developed a series of articles around the concept “If I make it myself, it’s not junk” and one of her recipes was for making Twinkies at home.

With a Twinkies formulation in one hand and a recipe for a homemade version in the other hand, I can actually do an “apples to apples” comparison between a formulated product and an equivalent homemade version. That was the third thread falling into place. I have what I need to count ingredients / markers of Ultra-Processed food (UPF) and compare nutrition stats. 

I needed to go out looking for Twinkies to get a label, always the best way to get the ingredient list. Product formulations change so the best source of data is always the current product label. Besides, I’ve never tasted a Twinkie so I was curious. I figured I should at least have a bite.

Using the ingredient list from the Twinkie’s wrapper and the Jennifer Schihauser recipe, I was ready to begin.

Running the numbers was easy because I’m in the business of recipe analysis. For guidance on the NOVA food classification system, however, I selected 2019 commentary Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them to serve as my reference guide.

INGREDIENTS & UPF MARKERS

Flour. Butter. Sugar. Eggs. Those are the primary ingredients listed in the homemade version. All familiar, recognizable ingredients. Besides the basics, the recipe also calls for salt, milk, vanilla, cream of tartar, heavy cream, and Marshmallow Fluff. That’s a total of 11 ingredients. 

The formulated Twinkie is manufactured with mostly unfamiliar ingredients. To my eye, they look like deconstructed fragments. Examples are high fructose corn syrup or dextrose or hydrogenated tallow, mono and diglycerides, polysorbate 60, soy lecithin. 

I counted 7 primary ingredients plus an additional 22 listed on the label as <2% by weight and felt comfortable tagging 18 as UPF markers.

What counts as a marker? As per my NOVA reference document, markers can be 1) “food substances not usually found in the home kitchen like high-fructose corn syrup or 2) “cosmetic additives” like flavors, colors, emulsifiers, sweeteners, or thickeners. Note that salt and sugar get a pass because NOVA classifies them as processed culinary ingredients.

NUTRITION STATS

Both homemade and formulated versions are intense concentrations of fats and sweetness with little positive nutrient benefit. And both versions are calorie dense. 

Nutrients per serving size is the best metric for checking how much you’re actually eating, but comparing nutrients in similar products needs a different metric. My choice for this type of comparison is the calorie density scale which reflects nutrient values by weight. Think of the calorie density scale as a sort unit price for nutrients.

The homemade Twinkie is 3.6 calories per gram. The formulated product is 3.4 calories per gram. To put these calorie density numbers in context, Doritos scores 5.1 on the calorie density scale whereas a Chipotle Beef Burrito will clock in at about 1.8 calories per grams.

Both recipe and formulation have comparable amounts of total fat but homemade Twinkies have a significantly higher concentration of saturated fat. No surprises here. Butter is the only fat called for in the recipe and butter is notoriously high in saturated fatty acids. 

The formulated Twinkies use a combination of animal fat (tallow) and seed oil (cottonseed oil) which results in less saturated fat and more unsaturated fat.

Both recipe and formulation are intensely sweet. Sweeteners in one form or another comprise about 40% by weight. Homemade uses granulated sugar plus some marshmallow fluff. The formulation lists sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and dextrose. 

Sodium is not significant for either version but it’s worth noting there’s more in the formulation than the recipe.

TASTE IS 100% SUBJECTIVE

The final thread fell into place when I tasted the Twinkie. Actually better than I expected but still too sweet for my taste.

WHY BOTHER?

It’s takes many hours to source and study the NOVA research, to count ingredients and identify the markers, and to compare nutrition stats. Here’s why I believe my time was well spent:

  • I learned that nutrients are easier to count than ingredients or UPF markers, especially hard was deciding which additives were “cosmetic” and which were not. Difficult and inconclusive.
  • Simplistic pronouncements by food pundits, corporate marketeers, or social influencers are misleading. NOVA is a sophisticated concept. Selecting a couple of buzz words may sell books or products but does a disservice to consumers.
  • Expanding my NOVA analysis skills is a good investment of time. My sense is we’ll be having more serious discussions about degree of processing in the coming years.

So do I plan to do more apples-to-apples comparisons between a formulation and a recipe? You bet I do.

 

 

Counting ingredients in my favorite Marinara sauce.

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

Home made Marinara sauce is the best. But life is complicated and having a couple of jars in the pantry ready to go when you need one in a hurry is helpful. The ingredients I use for my home made Marinara are tomatoes (fresh or canned depending on the season), garlic, onions, olive oil, salt, oregano, parsley. That’s 7 ingredients.

My favorite brand is Rao’s. The ingredient list reads almost the same as what I use for home made: whole peeled tomatoes, olive oil, salt, garlic, basil, black pepper, oregano. That’s also 7 ingredients.

Now 7 is greater than 5 and that observation started me thinking about the 5 ingredient rule. 

The 5 ingredient rule refers to the popular marker for identifying ultra-processed foods popularized by Michael Pollan in Food Rules. Defining ultra-processed by counting ingredients sounds unhelpful to my ear but it’s popular with both food journalists and food pundits. And the public seems to accept it because counting to 5 is easy to understand.

And that observation brings me back to my Rao’s Marinara.

With 7 ingredients and no other criteria, Rao’s is ultra-processed. So let me state my position right now for all to hear. If Rao’s must be categorized as ultra-processed, then I’m okay with ultra-processed products on my table.

Next time you’re walking supermarket aisles, check the Marinara sauce. There are hundreds of brands to choose from. Many have simple ingredient lists. Many others have more cluttered ingredient lists. Many brands substitute tomato paste or diced tomatoes for whole peeled tomatoes. So the way I see things, there’s work to be done to distinguish a straightforward product like Rao’s from all the other products on the shelf. 

A quick search on a local supermarket website brings up 75 options ranging in price from cheap to expensive. Not surprisingly, Rao’s is positioned near the top of that price range. All brands have 5 or more ingredients. And that means, if we follow the 5 ingredient rule, all brands of Marinara are ultra-processed.

I spot checked those 75 items and discovered the most notable difference is tomato integrity. Cheaper brands use tomato paste or purée or diced pieces. More expensive brand use whole peeled tomatoes. Tomato integrity is not captured by counting ingredients and it’s crucial to both taste and texture.

 While all brands exceed the 5 ingredient rule, most were comparatively additive free. Citric acid and calcium carbonate made frequent appearances along with preservatives, thickeners, or sweeteners making cameo appearances. Citric acid is an acidity regulator and calcium carbonate is a firming agent. Both these additives are ubiquitous on canned tomatoes whether the tomatoes are peeled and whole, chopped, diced, or puréed. 

Two other additives, salt and sugar, are listed as both nutrients on the nutrition facts label and again as ingredients on the ingredient list.

It seems ridiculous to my simplistic mind to put all Mariana sauces in the ultra-processed category without out further differentiation. So I’m asking myself, how would I break that category down? If I ruled the world, here’s where I would start.

First, whole tomatoes are preferable to chopped or diced or puréed tomatoes. That observation is probably related to the food matrix, a new concept in nutrition research currently in initial stages of investigation. Much too complex for my simplistic mind, so let me stay with those visual observable differences that both of us can see. In the case of the Marinara, the closer the tomato is to a whole tomato the better.

Second, less additives are preferable to more additives. I’m not talking here about the “clean” label movement. There’s a dirty little secret behind the clean label movement as explored in an excellent article by Nadia Berenstein. If you haven’t read it yet, take a look now. 

Additives are used by processors for many good reasons. Eliminating them before understanding why the manufacturer used an additive in the first place is not good practice. Additives are however legitimate markers of processed and ultra-processed products. Personally, I’m not concerned about their safety because I trust the FDA to do a good job. My decision to go with the fewer the better is based on taste and texture. Using the whole intact tomato just tastes better to me. More flavor. Better texture.

Third, nutrients remain important. Reducing healthy down to a couple of nutrients is insane. But it’s equally insane to eat as if nutrients don’t matter. Personally, I always check for salt, not so much for health reasons but because it’s been my observation manufacturers use salt in place of better quality ingredients so the product can be sold at a cheaper price.

Rao’s has a lower sodium concentration than many less expensive brands and the only sugars are the natural sugars present in all tomatoes.  The whole peeled tomatoes retain good flavor and contribute their natural sugars so no masking is required.

Now if only I ruled the world …

Cute and tasty and ultra-processed?

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

Pictured above is one package of Mild Green Mojo Multigrain Tortilla Chips and a couple of little Mojos. Not being a chip person, I’m not a good judge on how Mojos compare to the competition, but one of my best friends who speaks from years of chip experience has confided that the chips are good verging on addictive.

I do agree the Mojos are tasty. When I take the first bite, corn predominates. Very nice. Makes sense too because corn is the main ingredient. After the distinctly corn taste comes a cheesy somewhat salty taste. Definitely salty, but not so salty that other flavors are over powered. I’m okay with a couple of Mojos, however, I seem to be immune to what ever causes my friend’s addictive behavior.

INGREDIENT LIST

The ingredient statement lists each substance by name in descending order by weight and here’s what I found when I turned the package over. Note that parenthesis and brackets indicate sub-ingredients. I’ve also added asterisks to mark an ingredient as separate from any sub ingredients.

Ingredients: *organic ground whole corn, *organic expeller pressed sunflower oil and/or organic expeller pressed safflower oil, *organic brown rice, *organic chia seeds, *organic grain & seed blend (organic flax, organic millet, organic brown rice, organic quinoa, organic amaranth), *Late July organic mild green mojo seasoning (salt, organic green pepper powder, organic parsley powder, organic sour cream powder [organic cream, organic whey powder, lactic acid, cultures, salt], organic cheese powder [organic cheddar cheese, organic whey powder, lactic acid, disodium phosphate, cheese cultures, non-animal enzymes], organic whey powder, organic evaporated cane sugar, organic jalapeno powder, organic lime juice powder [organic lime juice, organic maltodextrin, mixed tocopherols], organic garlic powder, organic onion powder), *organic evaporated cane sugar.

That’s a lengthy list of substances most of which you won’t find in my kitchen cabinet. Note too that the word count is 114 even though the ingredient count is only seven. Many of those 114 words are repetitions. The word organic appears 29 times; the word powdered 11 times.

Both seed & grain blend and chia look to be intact but the other ingredients have all been pulverized or dehydrated.

DEGREE & PURPOSE OF PROCESSING

As my colleagues who work in the food industry love to remind me, humans have always processed their food. And they are of course spot on.

What is worth taking a closer look at however is the degree and purpose of the processing.

Making a chip takes some pretty sophisticated technology. First the ingredients are powdered, pulverized, dehydrated, and deconstructed. The industrial process is fascinating to watch. It’s easy and free to check one of the many videos available on UTube that gives you a visual of how a chip gets made.

Nutrients survive processing and are listed on the nutrition label but the food matrix has been shattered. In other words, the corn, green pepper, cheese, sour cream listed on the ingredient statement are unrecognizable.

Marketing the chips takes some pretty sophisticated technology too. Just take a look at that beautifully designed bag. Color is two vibrant shades of environment green with yellow lettering to highlight those intact seeds and grains. A work of art that has been hermetically sealed to ensure crispness and protect from intruders. Each bag sits seductively on the shelf patiently waiting for indulgence to happen.

I would say the Mojos are a outstanding example of a well crafted ultra-processed product. Would others agree? I don’t know. The concept has not been reduced to a consistent set metrics we can measure yet.

ARE ULTRA-PROCESSED PRODUCTS BAD?

The answer to that question depends of course on who you ask.

My position is to remain neutral but to ask lots of questions. How does all the grinding and pulverizing effect metabolism? Are we really just eating pre-digested food? Why am I satisfied with a handful of Mojos but my friend can’t put the bag down? And, most basic of all, what set of metrics should we use to decide what is ultra-processed and what is not?