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?

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The unintended consequences of buying labels instead of food.

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Was visiting one of my favorite foodie stores in the Catskills last weekend and as I walked through the produce aisle I happen to notice the apples. Now this is the beginning of a glorious apples season in New York State. Local production is varied, delicious, plentiful, and available during the next couple of months.

The store prides itself on being a “health food” store and is a stickler for organic certification. But I figured they would also bring in local product if only as a gesture of good will. To my utter amazement, there were no New York State apples. Just USDA Organic apples from, would you believe it, Argentina!

That means the store choose to import an apple from Argentina which is over 5,000 miles away instead of carrying a locally grown apple. And that got me to thinking about what happens when folks make decision on what to eat based on the label instead of based on the apple.

That apple pictured above was from last fall. I can’t remember the varietal name but I do remember how delicious it tasted last fall I took the picture first because the apple looked so fresh and shiny. I don’t remember if the grower had bothered to get USDA Organic Certification. In fact I don’t care. I value local over USDA organic so I select growers and farmers carefully but best practice is more important to me than a particular certification.

Besides I also know that pests and weeds are a fact of farming life, so you have to do something to protect the crop. Organic certification does not mean no pesticides or herbicides. It just means the pesticides or herbicide used are natural and not synthetic. I also know that eating more apples is better for your health independent of an organic certification.

The orchard were I bought that apple has been selling apples for 10 generations which suggests these folks are seasoned and experienced. Ten generations ago, everyone farmed organically because there were no synthetic products. Organic certification on the other hand is really the new kid on the blog. State certifications started gaining prominence starting in the 1960s and USDA process verification started in the early 1990s.

Since the organic certification process is expensive and time consuming, many small scale growers and farmers don’t have the manpower or the discretionary dollars to get the certification. And since pests and weeds are a fact of farming life, everyone needs to use some sort of protection.

It really is a matter of trust. And in the best of all possible worlds we wouldn’t need to choose and we could have both. But sometimes you do have to make a decision. Some of us have more trust in an impersonal label or a certification. Others like me have more trust in the people do the farming or growing. At least choosing between an Argentinian apple and a local New York State, at least you’re still eating an apple. A whole fresh piece of fruit with all the attributes of an apple.

There’s a more sinister consequence of buying labels instead of food. Imagine a fresh apple versus apple juice. Or a fresh apple versus versus a packaged consumer goods apple product. Most would agree that a fresh apple is more nutritious than an ultra-processed apple snacks made from dried apple powder and sugar even if the label says the product is natural, gluten free, and nonGMO verified.