Decoding Labels: Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli


Have any of you noticed that our definition of “junk food” has narrowed over the course of the last few decades? The average young parent these days will tell you that they don’t feed junk food to their child, but they’ll still drive them through a fast-food joint once a week.

They’ll tell you that they don’t feed their children junk food, but they’ll still give their kiddos macaroni and cheese and corn dogs for dinner.

They assume that junk food is only stuff like candy or sugar-sweetened snacks. Fried chicken, pizza, hamburgers, mac & cheese — none of these are considered junk food anymore. Because of that, they’ll happily open a can of Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli for their kiddos and be proud of the fact that it’s well-balanced. It’s a serving of vegetables, meats, and grains all wrapped up in an easy package.

And, it’s the world’s #1 selling pre-cooked pasta.

Here’s what the manufacturer claims:

“It’s a full serving of vegetables with no preservatives.”

Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli: Ingredients

  • Tomatoes (Tomato Puree, Water),
  • Water,
  • Enriched Wheat Flour (Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate [Vitamin B1], Riboflavin [Vitamin B2] And Folic Acid),
  • Beef,
  • Crackermeal (Bleached Wheat Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate (Vitamin B1), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Folic Acid),
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup,
  • Soybean Oil,
  • Salt,
  • Textured Vegetable Protein (Soy Flour, Soy Protein Concentrate, Caramel Color),
  • Carrots,
  • Onions,
  • Modified Corn Starch,
  • Caramel Coloring,
  • Citric Acid,
  • Enzyme Modified Cheese (Cheddar Cheese [Pasteurized Milk, Cultures, Salt, Enzymes],Cream, Water, Salt, Sodium Phosphate, Xanthan Gum,Carotenal [Color]),
  • Flavorings.

Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli: DECODED

Tomatoes & Water are the first ingredients. Given that this is a canned pasta in sauce, that’s actually pretty good. Are the tomatoes organic? No. Were they likely grown in nutrient-depleted sand rather than actually fertile soil? Yes.

Enriched Wheat Flour and Cracker Meal make up the bulk of this food, and are likely the primary ingredients of the pasta itself. Unfortunately, these are refined flour. So, not only are they not whole grains, but they’re also not traditionally prepared. (For more on traditional grain preparation techniques and why they’re superior, read How to Eat Grains).

Beef is the next ingredient. Unfortunately, this is beef that’s been finished in feedlots. Animals finished in Confined Animal Feeding Operations are a sad example of animal husbandry. Not only are the CAFOs themselves destructive to the environment, but the animal foods they produce are far less healthy for you. Rather than derail this post, may I suggest that those of you interested in a discussion of how to eat HEALTHY, humanely-raised animal foods read my post Healthy Meats: What to Buy?

High Fructose Corn Syrup needs little introduction. It is almost certainly from genetically-modified corn. It’s also been shown to make you stupid and gain weight.

Soybean Oil is almost certainly from genetically-modified soybeans. It’s marketed as a healthy oil, but it simply isn’t. That’s because it’s new.

You see, prior to the industrial revolution, making seed-based cooking oils was far too labor intensive and (in many cases) downright impossible. All the ancient cooking oils (like coconut oil, palm oil, olive oil, etc.) are easily pressed out of the plant without needing extremely high-pressure or high-temperature extraction.

After the industrial revolution, we had the technology necessary to create modern seed-based cooking oils. So, we did.

But the process of making and refining these oils translates into one thing: rancid polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). PUFAs don’t hold up well to heat or pressure. Soybean oil is roughly 58% polyunsaturated fatty acids — nearly twice that of canola! So, in the process of being extracted from the seed, these oils oxidize and many of them plasticize (turn into trans fats). The end result is stinky and unappetizing, so the oil is further “cleaned” using bleach or alternative chemicals to deodorize it.


Salt is the next ingredient, and it isn’t the real sea salt that your body flourishes on. Rather, it’s the standard table salt that’s been refined so that it’s other trace minerals are absent. This highly isolated form of sodium chloride is what’s linked to increased risk of heart disease, and there’s a surprising amount of it in this food.

Textured Vegetable Protein is a cheap meat-substitute made out of soy. Unfortunately, this kind of processed soy is extremely unhealthy. For more on this, see Dangers of Soy.

Carrots and Onions are rather self-explanatory, so that brings us to Modified Corn Starch. Like the corn-derived high fructose corn syrup, this almost certainly comes from genetically-modified corn. Yet perhaps the greater hidden danger is that it’s a source of processed free glutamic acids — otherwise known as MSG. (Read more about why MSG is dangerous.)

This, combined with the ever-ambiguous Flavorings, does not bode well. That’s because Flavoringsc can hide MSG!

Unfortunately, it’s perfectly legal for a company to say their food product has “No added MSG” so long as they don’t add an ingredient called “monosodium glutamate” to their food. MSG, however, hides in more than 40 commonly used ingredients in industrial food — ingredients like flavoring. This means MSG can sneak up on you in a whole host of foods that don’t technically have a single ingredient called monosodium glutamate listed on their label. (source)

Enzyme Modified Cheese is just what it sounds like — “modified” cheese. The cheese obviously isn’t from grass-fed cows, which means that it comes from an industrial dairy where cows can be routinely treated with hormones and often have persistent, low-grade mastitis (resulting in a lot of PUS in the milk). For more on this, read Healthy Milk: What to Buy. It’s also been modified with thickeners, emulsifiers, and colorants.

And finally, that Caramel Coloring and Citric Acid is most likely derived from genetically-modified corn.

Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli: THE VERDICT

This is a no brainer!

What should I eat instead?

There is no easy way around this. If you want ravioli without any compromises at all, you have to make it yourself. My absolute favorite recipe is Kelly the Kitchen Kop‘s Butternut Squash Ravioli. It’s dreamy.

For a good pasta dough recipe, along with a fantastic visual tutorial for how to make and stuff ravioli, I like Food Loves Writing‘s Homemade Einkorn Ravioli.

And for a gluten-free pasta dough recipe, I enjoy Tasty Yummy’s Homemade Gluten-Free Ravioli.

Yet making your own pasta can take a long time. If that’s the case, and you’re looking for a convenient, store-bought ravioli, then there are a lot of options. You just have to weigh what compromises your family is willing to make.

Want something absolutely wheat-free? Then buy a gluten-free ravioli like this one.

Don’t care about the wheat so much, but want to ensure the eggs used are free-range and the cheese used is from cows raised without hormones? Then you’re more likely to pick up an all-natural ravioli like this one.

Want Your Labels Decoded?

In this series on Decoding Labels, I’m highlighting deceptive labeling practices, hidden ingredients, and more! If you’ve got a particular label pet-peeve you’d like me to share, please feel free to email me with your idea. It may just turn into a blog post!


  1. Catherine says

    Well, prehistoric people in northern China were making oil from perilla seeds but I wouldn’t disagree with the general gist of your article. What on earth is enzyme modified cheese though. That sounds nothing like food!

    • says

      Yes, there are lots of ancient seed oils — but none used for cooking.

      They’re like linseed oil: used for varnish and oiling surfaces and sometimes ink.

      These ancient seed oils could be made for the same reason olive oil could be made. The oil could be easily pressed out with rudimentary technology.

      Modern seed oils aren’t like that. They only exist because of high-temperature, high-pressure extraction methods. They have never before been FOOD for humans.

      • Catherine says

        That’s interesting but can I ask what evidence you have that these type of oils weren’t eaten? Perilla is certainly used in several modern cuisines.

  2. says

    Great article! It’s especially useful that you provide some better options. I was slow to realize (like most people) how our food has been gradually replaced with lab-created junk over the decades since industry took over food production.

    • Jamie says

      True, but the industrial revolution first affected food more than a century ago now (as you’ll find in reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, if you’ve not yet done so; I recommend it). Your parents did not principally eat whole foods; their parents likely did not principally eat whole foods.

      It’s easy to say “this isn’t natural,” but not everything is harmful simply because it is not taken directly from the ground. There are some things known to be bad (e.g. trans fat), but to heap scorn on salt for being “refined so its trace minerals are absent?” That’s silly: your body uses salt for its water-affecting properties, and it is only the salt itself (sodium chlorine) that matters in that regard. Too much salt, sea-derived or otherwise, is bad for you.

      And how often do you stop to wonder as to the total carrying capacity of the planet to sustain people using the holistic farming models your tout? Humanity struggled with starvation on a global scale until industrial production arrived on the scene — not because of market manipulation, as is the case today, but because of literal famine. Certainly, things can be done better, but the idea that we’re all going to save the planet by living on pastured beef or importing vegan delights from 10,000 miles away isn’t likely.

      So…yeah, Chef Boyardee raviloi is not a natural food. It comes in a can, folks; if parents are unaware that canned foods are not whole foods, that’s an area for education. But denouncing every ingredient on the basis of assumptions (“…almost certainly comes from…”) or convenient spin can be applied to any food but one you grew, picked, or slaughtered yourself. Most of us don’t do that.

  3. John Mason says

    Thanks for sharing all of your knowledge concerning the “bad stuff” out there. Without getting into great detail, it’s made a big impact in my life. I share your posts with my daughter and girlfriend (who’se gluten intolerant) and it helps them make wiser decisions at the grocery store, too.

  4. Trixie says

    I was at the store with my 16 year old daughter today and she grabbed a can of Chef Boyardee Spaghetti and Meatballs and said, “I guess this is probably poison too, huh.” LOL. I assured her that it is, then showed her the endless list of ingredients on the back of the can. I told her that a beginner’s rule of thumb would be 5 ingredients or less and nothing you can’t pronounce. She laughed and said, “We might as well leave the store now.” I’m glad she’s listening to me, even though I still don’t fully grasp what I’m talking about yet. :)

  5. Audrey says

    Could you please give me your opinion on this product? I love these and eat a bag or two every week. I traded cookies and chips for this. I am a gastric bypass patient who has lost over 225 lbs and have kept the weight off for 9 years now. I am very much into healthy eating and have been following your posts, etc.
    Here is the item: DRY ROASTED EDAMAME / GLUTEN FREE /HIGH PROTEIN (which is something I need a lot of), they are lightly salted and are made by SEAPOINT FARMS. pkg states: 100% Natural Ingredients: SOYBEANS , SEA SALT ( 150mg per 1/4 cup). I realize the salt content isn’t the best to ingest on a daily basis, but figured the trade-off from chips & cookies was a much better and healthier way to go. Would love your thoughts on this! Please & thank you.

    • shalom says

      Edamame is soybean which as stated above is most likely GMO. It also messes with estrogen (it has been shown to cause little girls to develop prematurely if eaten frequently). At one time, tofu (made from soybean curd) was a waste product companies had to pay a lot to dispose of. They decided to call it a health food, resulting in a product they made a lot of money on. Historically tofu was eaten only occasionally and not as the main part of the meal. Soy sauce, on the otherhand, is safe to eat (as long as it is from non-GMO beans) because fermenting changes it and it is only eaten as a condiment or flavoring which is only a tiny portion of the meal.

    • CJ says

      Audrey congrats on you weight loss. you might try Premier Protein, this is a premixed protein drink sold in individual serving cartons. I buy mine at Sams. I do not like protein drinks,the texture and aftertaste, but these are great- vanilla or chocolate. One carton is only 160 calories but 30 grams of protein and 24 vitamins, it is a great snack for a bypass patient. I have them at work in my desk incase I work over and often have it for breakfast as I am heading out he door. Snacking on dried soy, crackers and cookies is too close to old behaviors-try this I think you will like it!

  6. says

    Of course the easiest healthier alternative to the labour intensive deal of making little packets of pasta with the goodies inside is just not to insist that the flavour is inside fiddly pasta envelopes… which is the grand ole pasta (very quick, cheap and convenient) and a sauce (which is what you make of it, but can be very cheap, easy, quick and healthy without too much effort). Although she would hate me reminding her of it, my American wife was surprised just how easy a pasta sauce is from scratch when she was separated from the American supermarket. To me, the idea of ravioli in a can is a lyric in a Truckstop Honeymoon song ‘Mumus and Houseshoes’. In a way, it seems the way back from Chef Boyardee isn’t through a replacement, but fundamental shift to feeding yourself differently than you do your dog. Love your stuff. Thanks,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>