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.


  1. It is too bad people cannot buy locally, and that local farmers have to jump through hoops to sell their products. The current system is not just about the government being deceptive, but also larger corporations that can jump through loop holes. For instance, why do American toy manufacturers who make wooden trains here have to pay thousands of dollars to have their toy pass health code inspections, but cheap toys sold at the Dollar Tree from China are not subject to the same scrutiny. Also, a lot of toys and products have chemicals that are apparently linked to cancer and reproductive harm, but the only difference between California and other states is that we have a law that says this information must be posted. The companies are still free to sell these products. I am not saying I am against the free market economy, but the current system seems to bolster those who have the most money to not worry about regulations. I think buying locally is best. The only solution I can think of is perhaps neighbors can trade food, goods and services with each other. If people are trading things liked baked pies for babysitting, etc. Does not always work that way, but there is a way to find more local stuff, if you look around. It takes a lot of time though, and who has time for that?

  2. Julia, yes. That is what is happening. All that corruption you just described so aptly is called crony capitalism, and it's not the free market. It's because of the laws and regulations intervening in the marketplace that big businesses are able to squash their more honest competition. This is what has happened to the family farm and to small ranchers and to artisans of many sorts.

    I do agree that neighbor trading with neighbor would be one way to counteract this problem. Another way would be to repeal all those laws that make it harder for the family farm and the small rancher and artisan to compete.

  3. I am no longer just for going along with laws that prevent small farmers from selling their locally produced crops. It makes more sense to buy local, and people claim this is the greener solution. If that is the case, why are we making it so much harder for people who make things locally to profit? Maybe it is because those who profit want to keep the laws as is because that would cut into their profits. I would like to see family farms thrive, but it seems this will be an uphill battle in the legal system. The only solution might be if enough people go to their local Congress people and demand control over their local economy.

    1. Just repealing the laws that enable this would be a very good start. Instead of telling candidates for Congress which laws we want passed, we should tell them which laws must be repealed -- and then hold them accountable if they don't do that.

    2. I think you should run for local office, Aya. I know you are busy with Bow, but you seem to have a lot of good ideas.

    3. Well, it's funny you should say that, Julia. I am actually running for the local county health board this year. The election is on April 7. It is not a big time commitment, as they only meet once a month.

  4. Oh and the ingredient on the package listing natural flavor. What could that be? Who knows, because they will never say.

    1. Yes, that is pretty mysterious. Natural flavor could be anything.