Saturday, November 17, 2012

Read the Fine Print

I've always been a label reader. Always. When I was a little girl, as soon as I learned to read I was putting my new found skills to good use, reading not just books, but everything that was written in English. Toothpaste tubes, cereal boxes, even the pamphlet detailing the rules to the game Clue. I took the time to read everything because I enjoyed learning and felt it was imperative to know these things. I noticed I was alone on this quickly when my friends would joke that I was a "nerd" when they would catch me reading the ingredients on our box of cookies. I was puzzled at why they thought it was weird. Isn't the information there for a reason?

So when I started eating a vegetarian diet in 2001, it was already second nature to read the labels of foods, and making sure something was free of gelatin, carmine color (the guts of squished red beetles, used to enhance the red or purple colors of some food products-yuck), chicken or beef broth, to name a few, was easy for me. But many people don't habitually read food labels, which can be disastrous.

Case in point, my husband and I bought some tomato paste last time we went shopping, but forgot we already had some at home. So we ended up with two different brands, one store brand and the other a major brand. The major brand, Contadina, is labeled "Tomato Paste" in large white letters and "Product" underneath in much smaller letters. This tomato paste was made "with Italian Herbs". The generic brand is just labeled "Tomato Paste".

What do you think the tomato paste "product" is made with? Do you think someone with a gluten intolerance, someone following a vegan diet, or someone allergic to soy or corn would think they have to check that their tomato paste would include any offenders? Check it out:

The Tomato Paste Product contains ingredients most of us would never expect, like high fructose corn syrup (second on the list!), Romano cheese, yeast, soy and wheat gluten proteins, and partially hydrogenated soybean oil. Notice the generic brand on the right contains just tomatoes and citric acid. Sure, it's not a perfect comparison, but I showed them side-by-side to prove that all the other ingredients are unnecessary, with or without herbs.

I think it's a reasonable expectation that your tomato paste with Italian herbs would not need all the other ingredients that force the company to include the word "product" on the label. Most of us would understandably just expect tomatoes and herbs. It is not unreasonable for a person who excludes dairy or gluten from their diet to think their tomato paste would be free of these items. We've got to read the labels of everything to be safe.

Especially in restaurants, where the ingredients are not listed for every menu item, you've got to ask questions. I waited tables at a popular pizza chain in California and their spinach and artichoke dip included chicken broth. Totally unnecessary, as was proven when they changed the recipe and omitted the chicken broth and nobody noticed any difference in taste. But who would think that would be in the spinach dip? Don't feel silly about asking--you never know.

I made the mistake once of ordering the minestrone soup at some hole in the wall Italian place without asking any questions about it. It's minestrone, which is a classic vegetarian soup, so of course I just ordered it. It arrived with bacon in it. Bacon, are you kidding me? Leave it to meat-obsessed Americans to ruin a perfectly healthy dish by adding fatty pig flesh. I explained to the server when I sent it back that it isn't labeled on the menu as having bacon in it so I didn't think it wouldn't be vegetarian. Restaurant owners should be wiser about how they describe their dishes on their menus.

Has anything like this ever happened to you? I'd like to hear your stories!

1 comment:

  1. This is such an issue in an age where it shouldn't be any longer. I am glad I have you to educate me on reading labels more closely and learning what the more mysterious items actually are.