Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Problem with Labels

The other day, when I was shopping as quickly as I could -- I pay dearly for every hour I am away from Bow, so I try to make good use of the time -- I picked up a bag of what I thought was shredded cheese at a good price, and I made a mental note of how I planned to use it. Variety in snacks is highly prized at my house, so I remembered that I had some tortillas at home and was getting some spaghetti sauce and some pepperoni, and I decided I could use all these ingredients together to make a quick pizza-like snack. No, it would not be as good as real pizza, but I thought the cheese, freshly melted, would give it some real value. It would be a standby that week, instead of the usual tagini and burritos.

Executing my plan at home.  I brushed some oil onto the tortillas, spread spaghetti sauce on top of that, then the shredded cheese, and for those who like pepperoni, added that on top. My oven was set to 400 degrees. I left the tortillas there for over ten minutes and checked to see if the cheese had melted. It hadn't. I left them there for another ten minutes. The cheese had still not melted.

The whole point of this was to get a quick snack. "Something must be wrong with my oven," I thought. So I took one of the tortillas and heated it up in the microwave for five minutes. The cheese still did not melt! Could both my oven and the microwave have gone on the fritz at the same time? I had made a roast the night before and there had been no problem. 

We ate the snack, but it wasn't very good and certain among us did not finish it. 

Then later I took a really good look at the label. It was not cheese. 

It was, instead "Fancy Shredded Monterey Jack Style Shreds." Now how do you parse that? Was it shredded shreds? Shreds of what? Shreds of Style?

When I was in  a hurry, if I read anything, it was probably this part "Fancy Shredded Monterey Jack" and I assumed it was cheese. Never assume!

But as a linguist, now that I see what it really says, I still wonder how to parse that:

       Is it   [[Fancy [shredded [Monterey Jack]] [Style Shreds]], meaning it is style shreds of Monterey Jack which happens to be fancy and shredded? So basically shreds of style?

        Is it   [Fancy [shredded [[Monterey Jack] Style] Shreds]], meaning that it is shreds in the style of Monterey Jack which have been shredded and these shredded shreds are fancy? In which case, it does not say shreds of what, but whatever it is, it's in the style of Monterey Jack and in addition it is shredded and fancy?

 There are a few other ways it could be parsed, but I leave you to work them out. The fact is that the top label was very confusing even when I read it carefully, and it was only after I had read the ingredients that I came to the sad conclusion there was no cheese in this product.There was some whey and some lactic acid, so there were dairy products in there, but it was probably not cheese, because the fat in this product was not derived from cream or milk. The main ingredient besides water and starch was soybean oil. 

But this is confusing, and in order to make sure it is really not cheese, one would actually need to know what cheese is. Many of us are a little fuzzy on the concept, so one way to find out would be to compare the ingredients here to those in a product that is basically cheese.

Above is a picture of a Monterey Jack cheese label. Notice the word cheese is used, but it's still kind of confusing, as the "sliced Golden Natural Cheese" seems to modify the words Monterey Jack. The ingredients seem simpler than those of the shreds: Pasteurized milk, kosher enzyme, culture, salt, natural coloring. But is this real Monterey Jack? What is the coloring and the emphasis on it being golden?

Here below is a link to a recipe for how to make Monterey Jack:

I looked at the recipe, not because I am planning to make Monterey Jack myself, but because I wanted to know what is normally found in that cheese. This recipe calls for cream.  Is the Moneterey Jack it describes more "real" or "authentic" than the one in the package above?

Most consumers, myself included, don't think about the ingredients of cheese when they are looking for cheese. Cheese is an indivisible whole, a basic concept in food. We just want the label to tell us whether it is cheese or not. And that's exactly what the label will not say. It is being coy.

Yes, I know it is important to read all the ingredients. It took me several years of chewing aspartame-laced gum to find out that even though I was carefully buying the kind that had sugar in it, they had slipped aspartame into all the normal gum products of the main brands, not just those which were marked sugar-free.

And recently I heard that they changed the name of aspartame to aminosweet in 2009.  High fructose corn syrup, also much maligned, almost changed its name to "corn sugar"

I don't think that the real solution to food substitutions -- soy for milk-fat, high fructose corn syrup  for cane sugar or molasses, GMO for natural produce and the like -- can be resolved by labeling, because labels are hard to read and can be very misleading. If you lobby the Federal agencies in charge of labeling, you can end up with a new name for the same product every few years. I would not trust the government to keep our food pure or even to help us find out what is in it. 

I think the best way to find out what is in a food is to talk to the person who made it. Which is why I favor a free market that allows consumers to buy directly from the farmer, the local dairy or the baker. It's better to buy food from the people who grew it and made it, if you do not have the time to grow or make it yourself. The real issue is trust. I think a real person would tell you if the cheese he made was real or fake, He would not try to push it on you as fancy shredded shreds of nothing in particular.