What the hell am I eating?

I’m reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, et. al. and it’s got me thinking about what I eat. I’m already vegetarian, but a vegetarian who (a) eats a lot of cheese, and (b) travels a lot. Although the USDA and the FDA have some rules on food labeling, companies (especially folks like Kraft Foods) really push the limits in terms of convincing consumers that a manufactured, artificial product is somehow cheese. I have more thoughts, though, on what this really means.

Consider for a moment that you can’t call something “cheese” unless it is naturally made. A bunch of other terms exist like “pasteurized process cheese” and “pasteurized process cheese food” and “pasteurized process cheese product” to describe things that you might mistake for cheese. That last one is most interesting in that it is more a failure to fit any of the other categories than an achievement of some level of quality. I.e., to be “pasteurized process cheese” there is a minimum standard: “The moisture content of a pasteurized process cheese food is not more than 44 percent, and the fat content is not less than 23 percent.” If it doesn’t fit that standard, it has to be called “pasteurized process cheese product” instead. Anyways that’s not the end of my musing. It’s just the basis.

If I go to some bland, American restaurant where they sell bland, American food like “macaroni and cheese,” the question is whether they are putting cheese in it. Given that there really are definitions of cheese, I wonder if they’re putting real cheese on the menu. Consider something big, like Darden Restaurants. They probably get most of their base ingredients (dairy things like butter and cheese) from a major company like Sysco. I don’t know if that’s literally true, but it’s conceivable. Let’s just assume that’s true. Their Smokey Bones restaurant has macaroni and cheese on its kids’ menu. So, is that “macaroni and cheese” or is it “macaroni and pasteurized process cheese food” or is it “macaroni and pasteurized process cheese sauce”? The difference is important. Nutrition value varies quite a bit depending on whether it’s milk solids or mostly water. Is there sugar or some other undesirable, non-cheese additive, or is there just cheese?

So, my fundamental question then is: do restaurants follow the same guidelines as manufacturers? No, they don’t really. Must they? Actually I don’t know, yet. I’m not sure where to start looking. Should they? Yes.

Companies like Sysco are honest in their labeling, in that they identify products as cheese, or cheese food, or cheese sauce. It’s not clear to me whether they are required to adhere to the same guidelines as manufacturers who sell to consumers. I can say this: If their product catalog lists something as: Cheese Imit Amer Yel 160 (product number 6173736), you can believe it is imitation american yellow cheese, and Sysco is labeling it correctly. Can Darden use that in their kid’s macaroni and cheese and not tell me that it’s imitation cheese?

I don’t really know the answer to this stuff. But it annoys me. American restaurants and food manufacturers routinely mislead consumers, and Americans willfully ignore what goes into their mouths. I don’t know why.

In doing my research, I came across an interesting spreadsheet. The nature of it suggests that they probably didn’t intend for it to be published. It’s interesting, though, since it gives prices from multiple manufacturer/distributors. Vive la web!