When I moved from Chicago to rural Pennsylvania, shopping in a traditional grocery store became my most depressing and frustrating errand. So many options surrounded me, all of them choices between lesser evils. Organic and local products eluded me. And ethnic or specialty food? I have cried over the lack of hummus. I will admit it.
Today, when I traveled to the nearest chain supermarket to fulfill a challenge my sister had set for me, I could feel that same frustration brewing.
My sister, who also works for Wolff’s, had challenged me to do a product comparison, looking at beloved Wolff’s Apple House items next to similar items at my local big box grocery store and exploring the quality and nutrition of each. But trying to find any product that even resembled those Wolff’s carries proved difficult in some cases.
Italian Wedding Soup
Wolff’s chef Chuck Smith makes his Italian wedding soup in small batches–no more than five gallons at a time– using “ingredients people could feasibly find in their kitchens,” says his wife Jill Ahern, who also crafts newsletters and Facebook posts for Wolff’s Apple House. These ingredients include chicken stock, escarole, beef, pork, garlic, panko breadcrumbs, eggs, grated Parmesan and fresh parsley. Chuck avoids over-salting the soup. He also adds generous portions of meatballs handmade with high quality pork and beef.
“It is (like all of the prepared foods) just honest homemade food that just happens to be in a container,” says Jill.
Grocery Store Version:
It didn’t seem fair to measure a conventional can of soup against Chuck’s homemade small-batch Italian Wedding. So I thought it should at least be organic. But it turned out the organic section did not have a single variety of Italian Wedding Soup.
Discouraged, I headed to the regular old soup aisle. It couldn’t be that bad, could it?
Well, unlike Chuck’s homemade Italian Wedding Soup, this soup contained 40 ingredients. The list took up an entire column on the label of this popular name-brand soup! And these were not 40 ingredients you would find in your kitchen, unless you stock caramel color, dextrose, corn syrup, hydrolyzed corn protein or sodium phosphate there!
Let’s investigate these ingredients.
Caramel color may make you think of caramel apples, especially this time of year, but some types of caramel–the most widely used artificial food coloring in the world–contain the chemical 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI), which has caused cancer in mice and may cause cancer in humans. Since it’s only used to color food and not flavor food, why use it?
Dextrose, a sugar made from starches like corn, contributes to the unhealthy quantities of sugar Americans consume. Did you think soup would be adding extra sugar to your diet? Another icky fact about dextrose: a lot of it is made from GMO corn.
Corn syrup, a cheap refined sugar made from chemically altered low-grade corn, joins dextrose in sweetening this soup and raising your overall sugar intake. While corn syrup isn’t the same as High Fructose Corn Syrup, some corn syrup brands do contain HFCS.
Hydrolyzed vegetable proteins (in this case corn proteins) are closely related to MSG and can trigger the same troubling side effects like headaches.
Sodium Phosphate sounds like something you’d find in the chemistry lab, and even though our bodies do need some phosphorus, food additives may be sending too much phosphorus into our systems. Phosphorus can be dangerous for people with kidney disease, and studies have shown that even for healthy consumers, there may be a link between higher phosphorus levels and the risk of heart disease.
It’s apple season, so next I headed to the juice aisle to see if they had any apple cider. They did! Or at least, they had a pale yellow watery substance that, for someone who grew up drinking Weaver’s Orchard Apple Cider, was nearly unrecognizable as the same product.
This time of year, the apples are coming straight from the trees at Weaver’s Orchard. They’re washed, brushed and sent to the cider press at Weaver’s. Once the last apples of the season have been picked, they’re kept in cold storage and the cider press continues until May. For the rest of the year, the cider is frozen, ready to be thawed and enjoyed.
The cider does not contain any preservatives, and instead of being pasteurized, it undergoes a UV treatment that keeps it safe without diminishing the taste.
Grocery Store Version:
The label claimed it was “100% Apples – Not from Concentrate,” but the ingredients list said, “Apple Juice, Apple Juice Concentrate.” What’s really going on here?
This cider was also pasteurized, which heats the cider and takes away that fresh-off-the-tree taste.
Potato Chips & Tortilla Chips
We all need our snacks, and we know there are many fall gatherings ahead that would not be the same without potato chips or chips and salsa. Can you really find high quality, locally made chips? At Wolff’s, yes!
Wolff’s sells potato and tortilla chips made by Uncle Harold’s Barn Good Snacks in nearby West Chester, PA. The corn tortillas they start with are made locally and are three times thicker than the average tortilla, creating a more substantive snack that’s also better for dipping. For their blue corn tortilla chips, they stick to organic and non-GMO blue corn.
Like the tortillas, Uncle Harold’s potato chips are also cut thick to deliver more flavor and substance. And, like the tortilla chips, they are gluten free!
Rather than using chemical preservatives, Uncle Harold’s makes their chips in small batches so that they are fresh. Their shelf life is just three months. Because they are a local business, they can start a batch when Wolff’s places an order and have it delivered within three or four days. So you can know that if you head to Wolff’s this weekend, you will be eating potato chips that were just made this week!
Grocery Store Version:
At a traditional grocery store, you can find a whole lot of potato chips in very large bags to encourage any couch potato tendencies. While the packaging on potato chips might seem innocent enough, during manufacture, some of the potatoes may have gone through a chemical wash to give them a uniform color. Also, many packages listed many different kinds of oils, rather than just one: “safflower and/or sunflower and/or canola oil.” Bad news for anyone trying to avoid a particular kind of oil.
Also, even though you’d think all potato chips and corn tortilla chips would be gluten-free, not all of them are!
My initial thought was to compare Haigis Fine Foods’ Mango-Lime spread to a grocery store alternative. But that was when I was young and idealistic, before I stepped into the florescent-lit world of the Chain Supermarket. The fact is, nothing like Haigis mango-lime fruit spread exists on the supermarket shelf. The combinations themselves are unique.
Karsten Haigis does make a red currant fruit spread, and I was able to find some black currant jam in the imported foods aisle, so this was as close as I could get. Here’s a look at the differences.
Haigis Fine Foods’ “The Currant State of Affairs Is Red” uses high quality pectin imported from Europe, the finest fresh fruit, real lemon juice and low sugar. It’s made right around the corner in West Chester!
Grocery Store Version:
What makes a difference is not always seen in the ingredients list. I know from talking with Karsten Haigis that he uses fruit at the pinnacle of freshness and that he avoids “crappy pectin.” With this fruit spread imported from Poland, it would not be so easy to talk with the people who made it and find out their process.
There was one key difference in the ingredients list, though. Instead of real lemon juice, the grocery store’s black currant jam used citric acid, which is often made using black mold (ick!). I’d much prefer good old fashioned lemon juice!
The store also sold a low sugar black currant jam, also imported. I wondered if it would be healthier. But nope, in addition to black currants, sugar, and citric acid, it contained glucose-fructose syrup (a.k.a. high fructose corn syrup), water and guar gum (which can cause digestive problems).
Next it was time to hit the bakery aisle. Who doesn’t love the bakery aisle? It’s full of warm, flaky fruit-filled bliss…. and, if you’re at a conventional supermarket… sodium benzoate.
Grocery Store Version:
In a clever move, the Chain Supermarket slapped the ingredients list on the bottom of the pie package. The presentation screamed, “Look at the pretty pie, not the ingredients!” Those who did bother to hold up the pie and look underneath could brace themselves for a rude awakening because it contained out-of-season clingstone peaches and:
Glycerin, which isn’t real food and which cause digestive problems, especially for people who are sensitive to it.
Sodium benzoate, which forms carcinogenic benzene when it’s combined with vitamin C.
“Gums.” What kind of gums are we talking about here? Guar gum? Xanthan gum? Chewing gum?
Our old friend citric acid.
The Bottom Line
At Wolff’s, you will find unique products and real food ingredients chosen for their quality. You can talk to a real person about the product, and often if you stop by on a sampling day or head to Facebook, you can connect with the people who made each product–I did!
Thanks to Jill Ahern and Lisa McWaters for their help with this article.