Last September, my sister challenged me to look at beloved Wolff’s Apple House items next to similar items at my local big box grocery store and explore the quality and nutrition of each. Trying to find any product that even resembled those Wolff’s carries proved difficult in some cases. And when I did find comparable foods…. bleh!
The two worst offenders were those you might least expect. A popular brand of Italian Wedding Soup contained caramel color (which is potentially carcinogenic) and a load of sweeteners, including dextrose and corn syrup. A pie from the baked goods aisle contained sodium benzoate, which forms carcinogenic benzene when it’s combined with vitamin C.
This week, I decided it was time to revisit the chain store for another comparison. What else would I find lurking in those long ingredients’ lists? And how would Wolff’s products compare? Here’s how pasta sauce, beef jerky and bake-at-home pizza stacked up. I present them here in order of how yucky the grocery store version was!
Wolff’s gets its pizza from A Casa Pizza around the corner in Newtown Square. A Casa has been making delicious bake-at-home pizza for over 25 years! Their recipes are simple. For the crust, they use flour, yeast, salt, canola oil and water. For the sauce, they blend tomatoes, salt, pepper, oregano and garlic. They use a blend of mozzarella and cheddar cheeses. Each pizza is all natural with no preservatives. Hurrah!
Grocery Store Version (Or, “There’s a Hair in my Pizza!”):
At the big chain grocery store near my house, I found a curious list of ingredients included in their bake-at-home pizza: l-cysteine, cellulose gum, high fructose corn syrup and powdered cellulose.
L-cysteine is an amino acid found in many bulk “dough conditioners” that large commercial bakeries use. The amino acid lengthens that pizza dough’s shelf life. And guess what it’s often sourced from? Human hair. Or duck feathers, chicken feathers or cow horns. But most often human hair, because it supplies a more potent form of l-cysteine. “It has been reported,” says an article from Mother Jones, “that most of the hair used to make L-Cysteine comes from China, where it’s gathered from barbershops and hair salons.”
So there we go. There’s a hair in your pizza… or a bunch of them. Eat up!
Now for the cellulose gum. Just like the powdered cellulose that was also found on the long ingredients list, it’s made from wood pulp. “The rising cost of raw materials like flour, sugar and oil,” says the Wall Street Journal, “is helping boost the popularity of these additives.” The FDA considers cellulose products “generally regarded as safe.” However, as Sagan Morrow writes on the Web site Healthline, “there’s still the potential that there are as yet unknown risks because it isn’t a traditional whole food.”
And high fructose corn syrup we know is gross.
What’s the problem here? Tomatoes are healthy! Yes, if tomatoes are most of what you’re eating!
Wolff’s Version: Vesper Brothers and H.G. Haskell are our main tomato sauce suppliers. H.G. Haskell makes fresh tomato sauce from his homegrown vegetables. Wolff’s gets both regular and heirloom tomato sauce from this local farmer. Yum!
And here’s Vesper Brother’s full ingredients list for their Tomato and Basil sauce:
- Peeled whole tomatoes
- Tomato puree
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Dehydrated garlic
- Parsley & spices
That’s it! I could grow almost everything here in my garden. And it’s not just the Tomato Basil variety that is so natural. I have read the labels of each kind of Vesper Brothers sauce that Wolff’s carries, and it’s all just as good!
Grocery Store Version:
I looked at a few different brands of tomato sauces here. Two had high fructose corn syrup, torula yeast and modified food starch. One had sorbitol.
If by chance you’d been lured by a sale on the variety that contained sorbitol, what would you actually be eating? Sorbitol is a sugar free sweetener and thickening agent that helps keep that tomato sauce nice and moist. It can also have a strong laxative effect if consumed in large quantities. Large quantities can cause bloating, diarrhea and abdominal pain. No matter how much of this additive you consume, it will be hard for your body to digest it, which means that it can cause excess water in the gastrointestinal tract.
Now for modified food starch. Manufacturers use modified food starch as a thickener. It can cause problems for gluten-free consumers. So, yes, even though this is pasta sauce we’re talking about–not bread–the prevalence of food additives means you really do have to explore every ingredient if you are preparing a meal for anyone on a gluten-free diet.
“Manufacturing of modified food starch is not transparent,” says the blog A Life Less Sweet. “…Many manufacturers will use whatever food starch is cheapest or readily available for their product – corn, wheat, or otherwise.”
And torula yeast? It’s often a byproduct of paper production. It’s a yeast that can grow on wood. And you’ll want to watch out for it if you have sensitivities to MSG. It may cause the same side effects (like nausea, headaches, weakness, or even the feeling that the back of your neck and your arms are burning!).
Wolff’s Version: Blaistix in Wallingford, PA supplies our beef jerky. It has a short list of ingredients: beef, evaporated cane syrup, sea salt, encapsulated lactic acid and natural spices (and they list out what they are on each label–which is great for those with allergies!). And it’s made from grass-fed beef!
Evaporated cane syrup is the same as sugar, only if it is labeled this way, you will know it’s actually made from sugar cane. In contrast, “approximately half the sugar supply in the US is from beets,” says the blog Fooducate, “and most of them are genetically modified. Sugar cane is not genetically modified.”
Lactic acid is a safe acid that occurs in almost all living organisms.
Grocery Store Version: Two things concerned me about this beef jerky.
First, it had MSG. Interestingly, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has noted that because MSG can bring out foods’ flavors, “the use of MSG allows companies to reduce the amount of real ingredients in their foods, like chicken in chicken soup.” (In contrast, Blaistix doubles the amount of seasoning they use, compared to what their competitors do. “Yes, this adds a little to our cost,” says their Web site, “but leaves us proud knowing we taste the best.”)
Yet the ability to swap real food ingredients for MSG is not the only issue. The Center for Science in the Public Interest further points out a 1960 study that associated MSG and nerve damage in mice. Since then, no rigorous studies have been conducted, says CSPI, “to determine just how little MSG can cause a reaction in the most-sensitive people.” Hydrolyzed corn protein, which I also found in beef jerky, is closely related to MSG.
The second concern was sodium erythorbate. It’s used to help products keep their color. It has no nutritional value. People who are sensitive to it might get dizzy, have headaches, or feel lethargic. It can also cause anemia, because it can destroy red blood cells.
This excursion to the grocery store left me thinking about how many ingredients found in the most simple, “natural” seeming products are simply not food. I knew this, of course. And I knew that it’s only at a place like Wolff’s that you can trust that what you are eating is not loaded with food additives.
Thanks to Jill Ahern, Ashley Wolff, and Lisa McWaters for their help with this article.