I blame my early years spent in the south of England for my gluttonous addiction to all things butter and cream. My visits in recent years have been stark reminders of how far ahead the British are when it comes to food labeling laws and ingredient allowances. Many ingredients we use here in Canada are banned in Britain. Canada needs to catch up, especially when it comes to products high in fat. The thing with fat is, it stays in your body far longer than carbohydrates or protein. If you eat fat with a bunch of chemicals and artificial ingredients, those too will cling to your organs. I like my fat sources to be pure, so even if I can’t afford a cornucopia of organic groceries, I still choose to pay extra and get organic eggs and milk. It’s in the cream cheese department that I find myself constantly struggling to find an alternative to Philadelphia’s many products, none of which are organic. Cream cheese is an essential in my fridge and so I had to do some research to figure out how I can keep up my mass consumption of the stuff while remaining free of toxins.
I’ve looked at the packaging and noticed that most grocery store brands call their product ‘cream cheese spread’ or ‘cream cheese product’. Imagine a small fraction of cream cheese molecules suspended in an artificial matrix of synthetic ingredients, and voila: cream cheese spread. I’m thankful for the politicians who fight for transparency and who have no tolerance for false or leading labels. Here, we are nearly par with British laws, or at least trailing closely behind. As soon as a company pumps in more than what is necessary to make cream cheese, we start getting into the impostor zone of ‘spreads’ with ten ingredients. These impostors, by law, have to, even in a discreet way, differentiate their product from the real thing. As the consumer, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves about which codes companies use to sell food riddled with so many artificial ingredients they aren’t allowed to use the actual food name (even though we shouldn’t have to carry any background knowledge in order to shop for healthy food!). Among the juice “drinks”, “cocktails” and “buttery spreads” we find “ cream cheese product”.
It doesn’t take much to make cream cheese; just dairy and a certain few bacteria, heated to the right temperature for the right amount of time. The process starts with milk and cream and by law needs to contain at least 33% fat. To turn the liquid into a solid, we need to add lactic acid bacteria. It is one of a few bacterium that can withstand the acidic conditions of cheese-making. When the solution has been heated, the proteins begin to coagulate (read: almost nearly cheese now!) and water (well, whey) is squeezed out of the cheese (officially considered curd at this point). Here, we can stop the process, scoop out the soft curd and package it as cream cheese but for the most part, it’s here in the game that manufacturers make the decision to continue the process, essentially switching from cream cheese to cream cheese spread.
You know how natural yogurt gets that yellowish liquid on top? That’s whey, which is totally edible!. The same thing happens to natural cream cheese, but we rarely see it (because we rarely have the opportunity to even choose a natural cream cheese in grocery stores). Because the yellowy liquid grosses some people out, manufacturers add emulsifiers to stop the product from separating, even just a little. It’s step one down the slippery slope to create the ‘perfect’ product. It’s obsessive compulsive the way companies insist upon modifying a natural product to keep it consistent, but sadly, it’s what they have learned they have to do. It makes a profit. It maintains their status as one of the big boys. The manufacturers are responding to the former reaction of disgust from ignorance. We can’t blame them - they just want us to open their product and be enticed, not afraid of pee-coloured substances. They need their food to be appetizing to their customers. North Americans have learned to ignore the multitude of extra ingredients which create a smooth, thick, glossy, white cream cheese because they know the product. It is consistent and therefore they don’t need to read the ingredients. There is trust in consistency. They see the product as a whole and not the sum of its parts. There is nothing inherently evil by acting on market analysis, it’s the way they do it: by pumping a product with artificial ingredients and selling to the uneducated rather than teaching their buyers that they should expect a layer of whey. It’s cheaper to extend the process and increase the volume by adding extras rather than keeping the product in its simplest form. At the end of the production line, a machine smacks on a graphically appeasing label, a familiar brand name or a frivolous health claim (contains calcium! gluten free!) and the tubs get shipped by the thousands into supermarkets, where they fly off the shelf.
Cheap food sells, which is a bonus for cream cheese companies who already add a multitude of cheap fillers in order to have a consistently smooth and super white product. The further we get from the real thing, the cheaper the product becomes. The product is diluted as much as possible before it teeters from the government regulated ‘cream cheese spread’ into something that isn’t even allowed to be sold legally as food! And still, cheap food sells. This sends the message that a low price is superior to quality and gives the industry the go-ahead to replace cream with modified milk ingredients, skim milk powder and other byproducts of cows milk, because once you’re this far from the original cream cheese, why bother spending money on anything natural at all?
By selling such large quantities, they push out the small guys who somehow stay motivated to produce the real thing. The healthy, natural alternative becomes the ugly duckling, squeezed to the edge of dairy shelves by the towering, familiar labels. The bigger they display on the shelf, they more trust-worthy they appear, the more they sell, the more they produce. Companies like Philadephia have the resources to stock the dairy section for weeks without their product spoiling and with frequent sales that still earn a profit. Cream cheese spread has become the norm. Let’s tip the scales and even things out a bit. You don’t have to buy organic, or even local, but try to support the little guys who are doing things right, lest we lose cream cheese altogether!
Some of the grocers in Toronto who sell natural cream cheese:
The ingredients that are used to stretch the product all affect the cream cheese. They also affect your body. The easiest way to eat well, in my opinion, is to eat food that is modified as little as possible. Here’s a quick list about what Food and Drug Administration of Canada allows in cream cheese products:
Acetic acid (can be labeled as Ethanoic Acid): used to alter or control the acidity or alkalinity of a food or to prevent a food from drying out. It also adds ‘flavour’ by making things a little tart. It is a good selling point! Good for up to 3 weeks! It means when there is a sale, you can stock up and enjoy the product in bulk before it goes bad.
Calcium Carbonate: As a food additive it is designated E170; INS number 170. It is used to alter or control the acidity or alkalinity of a food or to prevent a food from drying out. *excessive consumption can be hazardous* (something to worry about if you take a lot of antacids or calcium supplements). But it does help reduce diarrhea!
Calcium Phosphate (can be labeled as Acid Calcium Phosphate, Calcium Biphosphate, Monocalcium Phosphate,Tricalcium Phosphate )
Carageenan ( can be labeled as A171F , carageen, eucheuman, Irish Moss Gelose)
Carob Bean Gum ( can be labeled as locust bean gum)
Lactic Acid (can be labeled D-, L-, DL-2-hydroxypropionic Acids D-, L-, DL- lactic Acid, Racemic Lactic acid (Racemic 2-hydroxypropanoic Acid [for DL-form]):
Locust Bean Gum
Malic acid ( can be labeled as Hydroxysuccinic Acid)
Potassium bicorbonate ( can also be labeled Potassium Acid Carbonate)
Potassium Sorbate ( can also be labeled as 2,4-hexadienoic Acid Potassium Salt, Sorbic Acid Potassium Salt)
Sodium Aluminium Phosphate (can also be labeled as Aluminum Sodium Phosphate, Sodium Aluminophosphate) : up to 3.5% of the solution can contain it. Works as an emulsifying agent
sodium bicarbonate (can also be labeled as Baking Soda, Sodium Acid Carbonate, Sodium Hydrogen Carbonate)
sodium bisulphate (can also be labeled as Nitre Cake, Sodium Acid Sulphate,
Sodium Hydrogen Sulphate)
sodium carbonate (can also be labeled as Sal Soda, Soda Ash, Washing Soda):
Sorbic Acid (can also be labeled as 2,4-hexadienoic Acid)
Tataric acid(can also be labeled as L(+)-tartaric acid)
Permitted colour agents: Annatto;Carotene;Chlorophyll;Paprika;Riboflavin;Turmeric, ß-apo- 8′-carotenal;
Ethyl ß-apo- 8′-carotenoate(35 ppm), caramel (1.5%)
Permitted Enzymes: Bovine Rennet (Aqueous extracts from the fourth stomach of adult bovine animals, sheep and goats), Chymosin
(i) Chymosin A ( Escherichia coli K-12, GE81 (pPFZ87A)), Chymosin B (Aspergillus niger var.awamori, GCC0349 (pGAMpR);Kluyveromyces marxianus var. lactis, DS1182 (pKS105)) , Chymosin ( Aspergillus niger var.awamori (pCCEx3)) , Pepsin (Glandular layer of porcine stomach), Renet ( Aqueous extracts from the fourth stomach of calves, kids or lambs), Transglutaminase (Streptoverticillium mobaraense strain S-8112
“only aluminum sulphate (including its potassium and sodium salts) is permitted to be used in Canada as a food additive.”
CFIA: food additives and permitted synonyms table http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/labelling/core-requirements/ingredients/food-additives/synonyms/table/eng/1369857665232/1369857767799#h
Permitted colour agents:http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/securit/addit/list/3-colour-color-eng.php