What’s really in spam, non-dairy whipped topping, and other edible enigmas
Even the most passionate whole food fanatic has probably consumed something of dubious nature at one point in time. In fact, many everyday items on grocery store shelves—and even in higher-end health food stores—are, on closer inspection, more enigmatic than they first appear. From tofu cream cheese (how does a block of wiggly tofu become spreadable, anyway?) to that canned wonder Spam, we asked Barb Stuckey, professional food developer at Mattson and author of Taste What You're Missing: The Passionate Eater's Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good to reveal the truth behind seven foods that make you wonder (at least, they should).
Buy a block of tofu and that’s exactly what you get: A quivering mass of compressed soy milk that’s easy sliced into sauté-able, grill-able, and bake-able rectangles, but not remotely possible to spread on a bagel. Yet tofu cream cheese has almost an identical texture to the real stuff. How? According to Stuckey, soymilk—the base of tofu—is essentially processed in much the same way as cheese. The wet portions are separated from the solids, a coagulant is added, and the remaining mixture is blended with oil (typically vegetable) to create a smooth texture.
Canola oil is a favorite for its health benefits—it’s high in good fats and low in bad ones. But what is a canola, anyway? Canola was developed in the early 1970s by Canadian plant breeders who wanted to remove the anti-nutritional components (erucic acid and glucosinolates) from a seed—rapeseed, to be exact. This, understandably, is behind the pseudonym (“can” for Canada and “ola” for oil low acid). Either way, it’s a healthy, cheaper alternative to olive oil, its unfortunate “maiden” name notwithstanding.
Before it was Internet junk mail, Spam was (and is) an often-mocked canned meat product created in the late 1930s. Made of inexpensive cuts of pork and blended with spices and nitrates (a preservative), it’s cooked in its own can, which pressurizes it and allows the meat mixture to reach a temperature that renders it sterile—so it can sit for an eternity on a store shelf.
While it’s become something of a joke in mainland United States, Spam remains hugely popular in Hawaii, where it’s served sushi style, as well as in China, where it’s a common sandwich filling.
Something called “frozen dessert,” whether it’s soft-serve or in a carton, has a certain futuristic, Jetsons-esque ring to it, but it’s really about federal regulations, Stuckey says. “A product must contain a certain amount of its core ingredient, dairy in this case, to be labeled as ice cream,” she says. A product called a “frozen dessert” doesn’t meet the minimum requirements for dairy content, and thus can’t be called ice cream. .
So what is it? A little bit of dairy, oil (often soybean), and a whole lot of air, she says.
Here is an example of food science at its best (or worst, depending on your point of view). Non-dairy whipped topping is essentially a lab creation taking the elements of dairy—a fat and a protein—and blending them together to approximate the texture, taste, and mouth feel of real whipped cream, along other additives to enhance the flavor, creating, as Stuckey notes, “an incredibly highly engineered food product.”
In a brilliant bit of food marketing, those individually packaged cheese “food” slices are often called singles, and, like frozen dessert, contain less than the federally regulated amount of dairy to be labeled cheese. The rest is oil and emulsifiers. This not only creates a cheaper product, but one that melts evenly and faster (and had a lot less flavor) than the real thing.
Poor margarine. The scientists who invented it way back when had the best intentions. They knew that butter contained high amounts of unhealthy saturated fats and that vegetable oil did not—so after some lab tinkering, they transformed this healthier oil into a solid, spreadable form, which was then marketed for years as a heart-smart alternative to butter. Unfortunately the process of transforming a liquid to a solid requires hydrogenation, which creates wildly unhealthy (and now nearly banned) trans fats.