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I don’t think I’m the first person to feel at least a little bit disconcerted when I pick up a package, and it says something akin to “100% real cheese.” This whole phrase casts a kind of weird doubt on my whole food-based reality. If this food before me is bragging about it being entirely made of cheese, then what are the other cheese products made of? Are they even cheese? What if this package is lying and contains not-cheese? Then comes the even spookier question: if this product isn’t made with 100% real cheese, what is it made of?
Most of the food that comes on our shelves has to be passed through the FDA for safety and labelling. It is the job of this agency to make sure that the claims of the labels are accurate, including the ingredient list, claims on the box, and the nutrition facts. Sometimes it pays to look at the product description. By product description, I mean the phrase that describes the product other than “Sugar Cereal Bites.” For instance, the official label on some individualized American cheese slices are “Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product”. These often dubious sounding titles can be found in the fine print in front of the package. We often gloss over these things, but these labels can tell an important story about the product itself. There are three tiers of processed cheese proportions (Delish). The first tier is “Pasteurized Processed Cheese.” This tier promises 100% cheese. The second tier is “Pasteurized Processed Cheese Food,” which promises at least 51% cheese. The third and final tier is “Pasteurized Processed Cheese Product,” which means that under one half of the product is made of cheese. So, whenever you see “Processed Cheese Product,” the food is going to be less than half cheese. There are plenty of other labels for foods under the FDA, including an exhaustive set of documents for each food sector on their website. Each food, to be able to be cleared by the FDA, needs to hit a certain set of ingredient proportions to be allowed their label, just like with the cheese example above.
So, if some cheese isn’t really cheese, what is it? To cut costs, facilities will often cut their concoctions with certain kinds of fillers such as whey protein or processed milk protein (Delish). These new products will often have a longer shelf life as well. Cheese isn’t the only kind of food that has fillers in it. For instance, a brand of almond milk has been found to have about 2% almonds in it. The rest of it is water, sugar, and a thickener called Carrageenan (Delish). Carrageenan has also been found in meat filler. Yes, even meats can have filler in it. Meats will have fillers such as olestra, soy, and cellulose (Healthcare Management). These fillers can lower the price of production by up to 30%.
Okay, so not all of your foods are what they seem. Cheese somehow isn’t cheese. Beef is beefed up with soy and cellulose. However, should we really be worried? I mean, I don’t think I’m the first one to call attention to the existence of fillers and other mysterious ingredients lurking in the back of your cereal box. The answer to that question is yes and no. The good news is that a lot of these fillers are relatively harmless. Cellulose and carrageenan are 0 calorie fillers that can’t be digested by humans. However, fillers such as soy and olestra have been tied to sapping nutrients from your body (Healthcare Management). The best thing to do at this point is to try to look out for more “real” food options and to check the back of your package for fillers and other substances. Sometimes, finding fillers and other ingredients in your food is unavoidable, and sometimes you honestly just want a grilled cheese made with American cheese singles (no matter how space-age it looks).