Mystery Foods Unmasked

Written By: Sofia Layarda, MPH

Title: Master of Public Health

Alumni: University of California, Berkeley

Last Updated on:

Have you come across foods on grocery store shelves that sound or look mysterious to you? It could be the name, the appearance, or a combination of both. Well, wonder no more! Here are some seemingly mysterious foods, demystified.

Mystery No More

Beef Jerky

While the actual processing steps are usually a company’s closely guarded secret, beef jerky is basically made from marinated, seasoned strips of beef that are then smoked for hours to dry. This helps preserve the meat so that it can be stored without refrigeration. Seasonings vary, but often include salt, sugar, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and spices such as onion powder, garlic powder, or coriander. Some brands use additional preservatives in the form of sodium nitrite or potassium sorbate.

Shredded Dried Pork (Pork Floss)

Pork floss frequently appears in Asian grocery stores sold in clear packages or plastic jars. It looks like brown cotton candy and has a sweet and salty flavor. It is used as a topping on rice dishes or as a filling for savory buns. Shredded dried pork is made by braising cuts of pork in seasonings until tender, shredding the cooked meat into small bits, then dry-cooking the resulting meat over low heat for hours to cook off the liquid. A significant amount of sugar is added to caramelize and help speed the drying process. Because the process is time-consuming, most people who use this product choose store-bought versions, which tend to contain MSG, sodium, sugar, and sometimes nitrites.

Imitation Crab Meat

Fans of the sushi roll often called a California roll will be familiar with this product, as it is a cheap alternative to crab used in the filling. (Some Japanese restaurants offer the option of using real crab in the filling, obviously charging more). Imitation crab meat is made from fish that is cheap and abundant, such as the Alaskan pollock. First the scales and bones are removed, then the flesh is rinsed well to get rid of the fish’s own specific flavors. Flavorings are added (including sugar and often MSG) to achieve a uniform taste. Further processing is done to imitate the texture of crab meat, including cooking the meat so that the product can be consumed right out of the package.

Mock Meat

The name seitan is probably not recognized by most, but many people are familiar with the term “mock meat” or “vegetarian meat.” Seitan or mock meat is derived from gluten, the primary protein in wheat. The end flavor of seitan depends on the seasonings used while the seitan is processed. Depending on producers, mock meat typically will also contain some soy ingredients. Some producers such as Gardein are trying to appeal to non-vegetarians through products mimicking their meat counterparts, such as buffalo “wings,” “beefless” tips, and crispy “tenders.”

Hamburger Helper

Hamburger Helper is a line of products that consists basically of packaged dried noodles and powdered seasonings. There are many flavors to choose from, but generally they are high in sodium, use artificial flavors (including MSG) and artificial colors, and contain trans fats from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.


Most people know that tofu is made from soybeans. The soybeans are soaked, ground, boiled in water and pressed for soy milk, which is then curdled using a coagulant (in North America, it is usually a calcium-based salt). Once the curds form, they are removed from the liquid and then pressed into tofu. The firmness of the tofu depends on the amount of coagulant used. Because a calcium-based salt is often used, most tofu you buy will be high in calcium. Sometimes a “nigari-style” tofu is available, which is one that has been coagulated using a magnesium-based salt.

​The Bottom Line

Not all mysterious foods are bad. When trying out new foods, use the same common-sense approach you use when purchasing familiar foods: Check sodium and sugar levels, and steer clear of products that come with lengthy ingredient lists containing unpronounceable substances.


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