Suggestion Box: A Lot of Ingredients

Norman Weiss, Weavers Way Purchasing Manager

Greetings and thanks for writing. As usual, suggestions and responses may have been edited for brevity, clarity, and/or comedy. In addition, no idea, concept, issue, remark, phrase, description of event, word, or word string should be taken seriously. This also applies to the previous sentence.

You may have seen a line of frozen foods in our and other natural food retailers called Sweet Earth (currently stocked mainly in our Ambler store). Sweet Earth was acquired by Nestlé in 2018, following what’s become a familiar path of a natural food product brand: Create a reasonably healthy and decent tasting product line, find a way to get it manufactured and distributed on a broader basis, enjoy some sales success, then sell the company to one of the giant food companies and make a few million in the process.

Whether this is good or bad for society in general is a question for another time, but one thing I’ve noticed is that when smaller brands get acquired by large companies, often the large companies’ marketing departments get involved, and then consumers start to see marketing statements made up of mostly lies, at or least, half-truths. I happened to come across a Sweet Earth Empanada at a Target, and found the package (and then the website) an interesting example of this type of marketing.

Looking at the website, you would think the ingredients were mainly sweet potatoes, garbanzo beans, green olives, and raisins. From looking at the package front, you would think it mainly contains chickpeas, sweet potatoes, bell peppers, and harissa sauce.

Looking at the ingredients on the back of the package, we see it’s not so simple. There are over 30:

Filling: Chickpeas (Water, Garbanzo Beans, Salt), Sweet Potatoes, Red Bell Pepper Puree, Roasted Onion (Onion, Canola Oil, Salt, Citric Acid, Ascorbic Acid), Sweet Earth Tuscan Savory Grounds™ (Vital Wheat Gluten, Water, Soy Sauce(2) (Water, Soybeans(2) Wheat, Salt, Alcohol(1)), Onion, Garlic, Nutritional Yeast(1), Kale, Spices, Flax Seed, Parsley, Fennel Seed, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Red Bell Pepper, Natural Flavor, Natural Hickory Smoke Flavor), Roasted Red Bell Pepper, Olives (Olives, Water, Salt, Lactic Acid), Canola Oil, Raisins, Parsley, Spices, Capers (Capers, Water, Salt, Distilled Vinegar), Garlic, Lime Juice Concentrate, Smoked Paprika, Sea Salt, Cayenne, Pastry: Water, Whole Wheat Flour, Dairy Free Butter (Dairy Free Base [Water, Organic Butter Beans], Vegetable Oil Blend [Coconut Oil and Safflower Oil], Sea Salt, Calcium Citrate, Vegan Natural Flavors, Vitamin E, Sunflower Lecithin, Konjac Root Powder, Natural Colors), Enriched Pastry Flour, (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Vitamin B1, Vitamin B2, Folic Acid), Enriched Bread Flour, (Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Vitamin B1, Vitamin B2, Folic Acid), Vital Wheat Gluten, Sea Salt, Baker’s Yeast, Deactivated Yeast, Canola Oil(3), Soy Flour. (1)Organic. (2)Non-GMO. (3)Non-GMO Expeller Pressed. (4)Sweet Earth Product.

FDA regulations require food label ingredients to be listed in descending order by weight. So while the website prominently lists green olives and raisins, there are more than 16 ingredients before you get to olives and raisins (including light things such as spices and nutritional yeast), which suggests the amount of olives and raisins in this product is pretty small.

Products like this make me wonder about their creation. Traditional empanadas date back to 1520, in Catalan, Spain, and are made with fairly simple ingredients. The Sweet Earth version likely originated in a food lab, concocted by food scientists, with access to lots of ingredients, equipment, focus groups, and similar resources. How they decide to put in a pinch of raisins makes me wonder about their process. Are they adding them for some unique property raisins add to a processed food, is it a tiny part of the flavor profile, or is just so they can list raisins prominently on the package as a natural ingredient? (Interestingly, the picture looks like they’re golden raisins, which are bleached, so they’re not exactly natural.) It’s ironic that one of the marketing statements is, “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.” That’s a statement I can agree with, since I stopped counting what’s inside at 30.

suggestions and responses:

s: “Pleased to see the compostable produce bags.”

r: (Norman) These are the first compostable bags made from Mater Bi “bioplastic,” the first we’ve seen that are certified compostable in a home composting environment (as opposed to commercial composting environments, which use specialized machinery and enzymes). They are made from starch, cellulose, and vegetable oil, all renewable resources. Whether they will actually compost in your backyard depends on the specifics of your home composting environment. Composting is all about temperature, humidity, and bioactivity of microorganisms. We’re going to experiment with the bags at our Saul composting operation to see what happens. All three stores are switching to these bags because even if they don’t compost, they are still probably the most sustainable choice. Of course the best choice is to reuse your own bag.

s: “Sunflower oil in bulk, good for cooking.”

r: (Norman) We did stock it in Mt. Airy; it just didn’t sell well enough to justify keeping it (Chestnut Hill and Ambler do have bottled choices). FYI, sunflower oil, while having a high smoke point and being rich in vitamin E, is also high in omega-6 fatty acids, something to keep in mind if you use a lot of it.

s: “Xylitol?”

r: (Norman) We do stock Xylosweet brand in our Chestnut Hill and Ambler locations. It can be easily pre-ordered in Mt. Airy.

s: “Why do we stock many species of fish but only a few of species of birds (chicken, turkey, duck)?”

r: (Norman) We tried roasted wild-caught sparrow kabobs, but they seemed to have a very limited appeal despite having a nice flavor and texture. Maybe we shouldn’t have left the heads on, or maybe a sweeter dipping sauce would have helped. We are open to stocking more kinds of birds; if people have requests, let us know. Pigeon meat was popular before World War I.

s: “Can we stock potato flakes in Mt. Airy?”

r: (Norman) We already have lots of flakes in Mt. Airy; eavesdrop next time you’re in line. We have Bob’s Red Mill potato flakes, too.