Foodie Friday: When Smiling Panda Bears Lie

Posted on May 11th, 2012 by in Kripalu Kitchen

Lately, I’ve been playing around with a gluten-free diet. I often find that wheat feels heavy in my body, so a gluten fast this time of year often helps me lighten up. Because I don’t have a severe reaction to eating gluten, when I go gluten-free I don’t feel overly concerned about consuming any “incidental” amounts of gluten—mainly I just stop eating bread, pastries, and pasta for a few weeks. That said, during my gluten-free windows, I become more aware of how pervasive gluten is in the American diet and I’m always happy when I see companies making an effort to identify it or make versions of their products sans gluten.

Unfortunately, I also become aware of how the marketing potential of what has become, to some, a fad diet can turn this dietary choice into a sneaky way to pawn off cheap food to the unsuspecting!

Case in point: I bought some pre-made maki rolls from a local all natural grocer. In the Berkshires, we’re lucky to have several great locally owned stores that sell whole foods and organic produce. I went to Guidos, which is a wonderful combination of a main store (with all the basics) accompanied by several privately owned sub markets, much like the old indoor year round farmers markets I remember from my childhood in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

So back to my purchase, and, more specifically, the little packets of soy sauce that came with it. As I often take my makis home, I rarely use the soy sauce provided. If they’re all-natural I might save them for a picnic or travel. If they aren‘t, I simply discard them and wish the store would commit to using the all-natural kind.

On this day, I was at pleasantly surprised when I opened my maki box and found, on a leaf-green packet with a happy, smiling panda, the words, “gluten free soy sauce” plus the announcement “reduced sodium, wheat-free, 0g carbs.” ‘Wow!’ I thought. How cool that the gluten-free awareness has caught on so thoroughly. My eye was drawn to the bold words under the smiling panda, “I eat healthy food, do you?”

“Yes,” I said to my little friend. “I do! “But Mr. Panda, let’s be honest,” I thought as my gaze scanned down the front of the packet.

Under his fun exclamation declaring his healthful diet was that secret word; the word that, if we know how to read into it, reveals the rest of the story.

You know the word I’m talking about… INGREDIENTS. Although manufacturers can get away with stating all kinds of crazy things on the product label, they are also (thankfully) required to make a disclosure about the actual ingredients in their products. (Unfortunately even within their ingredient disclosure a lot of mischief can still unfold).

So what is Mr. Panda eating that’s a “healthy” alternative to regular soy sauce? Salt, hydrolyzed soy and corn protein, caramel color, and sodium benzoate as a preservative. But wait! I thought this was soy sauce! Where is the soybean? The answer? Long gone.

And what is hydrolyzed soy protein?

According to, the extraction process of hydrolysis involves boiling soy meal in a vat of acid (e.g., sulfuric acid) and then neutralizing the solution with a caustic soda. The resultant sludge is scraped off the top and allowed to dry. In addition to soy protein, it contains free-form excitotoxic amino acids (that’s MSG) and other potentially harmful chemicals.

MSG? That’s right, the stuff you can get a headache from if you don’t ask some Chinese restaurants to not put in your food. And there, my friends, is a peek into that longer conversation about how even the most benign seeming list of ingredients can be deceiving.

So where does that leave the gluten-free person who is taking care of themselves by buying a wholesome maki roll for lunch only to discover that the soy sauce amounts to something she considers nearly a poison? And how can Mr. Panda get away with being so deceitful?

The truth is that creating gluten-free soy sauce doesn’t have to include the use of any chemicals. The soy sauce-like product “tamari” is a naturally gluten-free food made without MSG and soy protein.

Here is a description from Muso’s website (a Japanese manufacturer of soy products): In Japan, “Shoyu” is the Japanese name for soy sauce which is made from a mash of soybeans and wheat, while “Tamari” is a non-wheat product made by drawing off the liquid content of soybean miso.

The naturally dark color of both shoyu and tamari are due to the fact that they’re fermented. The fermentation process creates wonderfully healthy enzymes and natural preservative properties. So a natural shoyu or tamari requires soybeans, salt, and koji (the natural enzyme starter) plus a bit of alcohol as a natural preservative.There are several great, natural soy sauces on the market (my favorite brand is Eden). They are a great example of how a small company was able to go big without selling out to a multinational corporation.

The bottom line: Just because the label says “healthy” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true! Read labels, do a little research for more information, and above all, don’t let cute smiling pandas charm you into eating anything you might regret.



About Deb Morgan

Deb, Kripalu’s Former Executive Chef, draws on more than 25 years’ experience in the world of natural foods, including owning and running an organic restaurant and tea shop. Deb is an enthusiastic chef and is author of the Kripalu Seasonal Recipe Book series. Her approach to food and cooking is grounded in a deep belief that love is the main ingredient in a healthful diet.