When you start digging into what it means to eat healthy, wholesome, “real” foods, you’ll hear person after person tell you that these foods can really only be found around the perimeter of the supermarket, not in the inner aisles.
Yet if you were to actually walk those aisles and read the claims on the packages, you’d hear a vastly different story. Told by the manufacturers. And clever marketers. Who want you to think this fake, processed, chemical-laden, harmful, nothing-real-about-it food is actually life-giving and beneficial for you and your family.
So who’s right?
Well, I think that’s pretty clear. We’ve been learning, many of us the hard way after years of terrible health, that truly nutritious, healing, wholesome food does not come in colorful, cartoon-character laden packages and cellophane wrappers. Rather it comes from foods that are whole, fresh, local, seasonal, organically or ecologically grown and raised, and so on.
And yet, today I saw the phrase “farm fed”on a package of chicken and I had to ask myself, “What on earth does that even mean? Aren’t all chickens fed on a farm? They all eat, right?” (Of course, the oh-so-scientific answer to my question would be “absolutely nothing”. But I digress…)
Each and every time we go out to shop, we’re bombarded with messages from those fancy marketing experts, trying to make us believe (whether consciously or un-consicously) that their processed package actually contains something healthier than the others. That their product is indeed fresh, natural, pure, wholesome, full of nutrients, from quaint farms and happy, healthy animals.
I love how Bryan Marcel put it in his article on deceptive advertising:
Food packaging is designed to entice you. The manufacturer—that word, manufacturer, in relation to food, should scare you—wants you to buy their product. They have become masters at “cherry picking” the only redeemable qualities of their food products and exploiting those qualities to lure you into a purchase. But beware. It’s a shell game.
Peter Pan Creamy Peanut Butter’s front label boasts “No Sugar Added”. That sounds healthy. Let’s buy it. Wait! Remember that the front of the package is only designed to sell the product. The truth can usually be found on the back. Read the ingredients. It’s true, there isn’t any sugar added. But the second ingredient is partially hydrogenated cottonseed and rapeseed (canola) oil and the fourth is sucralose (Splenda). Sugar in this case isn’t the problem. Trans fats and artificial sweeteners are.
Deep down, we know it’s bunk, but these messages and buzzwords are created with psychology in mind. They’re made to trick us, even when we know better, even when we’re becoming more informed about our food supply and what we put into our bodies.
Today I’m going to pull the curtain back on some of these terms of trickery, these clever ways they’re attempting to deceive us. Perhaps you’ve fallen for some of them. I know I have. They’re good, these marketing departments. They know their stuff.
(And warning… this post is a bit epic. But that’s how much information there is you need to know. Don’t worry, I included lots of pictures and headlines and made it super easy to scroll through.)
Technically, this term is only meant to distinguish between meat (specifically poultry) that has or hasn’t been handled at a temperature below 26 F (ie. it hasn’t been frozen). Beyond that, this term has no technical meaning on a label.
Another variation on this is “farm fresh”, which literally means nothing. All food, at some point or another, technically came from a farm (goodness gracious, we hope). But when a food is labelled as “farm fresh” it does not in any way indicate the manner in which the food was raised. For example, an egg from both a cramped, caged chicken that has never seen the light of day AND an egg from a chicken freely roaming on pasture, eating worms and grubs and getting exercise and fresh air — both of these eggs can be labelled as “fresh”.
Unfortunately, egg labels are particularly confusing. Organic and free-range might not mean a chicken that’s pecking around outside, despite the pretty farm field pictured on the carton. Omega-3 eggs are mostly likely from caged eggs eating a fortified diet, but doesn’t imply anything about their living conditions. Grain Fed isn’t a good thing; it’s actually the opposite. You want a hen that forages on worms and grubs it finds in the dirt and grass. And on it goes… check out this post for a really good look at deciphering egg labels.
2. Natural (or All-Natural)
The term “fresh” is child’s play when it comes to food terminology. It’s when we get to “natural” that the stakes get a whole lot higher.
So high, in fact, that many brands are being sued over the use of the word “natural” when their products contain ingredients that are clearly not:
When the federal government fails to act to protect the public, we often see private lawyers filling in the gap. Such is the case with a spate of recent lawsuits claiming that food companies are deceiving customers over “natural” products that really aren’t. Examples include Kashi (a division of Kellogg), sued for using “unnaturally processed and synthetic ingredients” in its GoLean brand; Arizona brand iced tea for using high fructose corn syrup; and ConAgra, over the GMO content in its Wesson line of cooking oils. (source)
The only official definition of “natural” when it comes to food labelling comes from the USDA (which actually refers to meat and poultry), which states that a food product or ingredient is “all natural” or contains “nothing artificial”, or that it is not natural if it contains synthetic or artificial ingredients (source).
But, when it comes to all other packaged foods, the FDA has not actually come up with a definition for the word “natural”. Which allows companies the freedom to define it however they want.
But let’s look more in-depth at that Kashi example. This is taken from the official complaint filed with the United States Distrcit Court in Southern California (and though I don’t usually make a point of reading legal documents for fun, this is actually pretty fascinating stuff):
Consumers lack the ability to test or independently ascertain the accuracy of a food label, especially at the point of sale. Reasonable consumers must and do rely on the food company to honestly report the nature of a food’s ingredients… As a result of their false and misleading labeling, Defendants were able to sell these products to hundreds of thousands of consumers throughout the United States and to profit handsomely from these transactions…
…For example, Kashi’s All Natural GoLean Shakes are composed almost entirely of synthetic and unnaturally processed ingredients, including sodium molybdate, phytonadione, sodium selenite, magnesium phosphate, niacinamide, calcium carbonate, calcium phosphate, calcium pantothenate, pyridoxine hydrochloride, thiamin hydrochloride, potassium iodide and other substances that have been declared to be synthetic substances by federal regulations. (bold mine)
Essentially, when we see “natural” or “all-natural” on a food label, it should mean that it does not contain anything synthetic or artificial. Which would be good news.
Except that we can find example after example of product labelling in complete opposition to that, and even including ingredients like High Fructose Corn Syrup or GMOs.
What can we gather from this? That “natural” is not a term we can trust, and we need to go straight to the ingredients instead.
Although this word is not always overtly used, it is frequently implied.
One example of a product being promoted as healthy, even if they don’t use the actual word in their advertising, is Nutella, a chocolate-hazelnut spread very popular in Europe.
Commercials like this go out of their way to showcase it as a great addition to a healthy breakfast (mentioning foods like whole grain toast or waffles), and say that it is made with “simple quality ingredients like hazlenuts, skim milk and a hint of cocoa”.
Except that in these screenshots from the official Nutella website, you can clearly see that 1) SUGAR is the first ingredient in Nutella, and 2) there are actually a whopping 21 grams of sugar in every 2 tablespoon serving! Not so simple or healthy, is it?
4. Gluten Free
Gluten free gets a lot of good press these days, being hailed as a healthier choice, even though a huge percentage of products labelled gluten-free on the market are actually highly processed, contain large amounts of sugar, as well as plenty of preservatives, artificial flavors and colors and fillers.
In other words, they’re junk food with a “Gluten Free” label slapped across the front.
Now, I’m not saying the product isn’t gluten free. It probably is. What I am saying is this is a buzzword that means nothing in the context of so many products, yet it’s added to make the consumer assume it’s a healthier choice.
Organics have seriously flooded the market over the past 5-10 years, and in many ways, that’s a really, really good thing.
But sometimes, it can also be somewhat deceptive when we see that glorious “I’m Organic!” label catch our eye, so let’s be real about what organic does and doesn’t mean.
Here are some specifics that are helpful to know:
- As with the “Gluten Free” label, “Organic” gets slapped on a whole lot of very processed, junky foods. Just because it says it’s organic does not mean that it’s automatically good for you.
- Packaged products which indicate they are “made with organic” ingredients means they contain at least 70% certified-organic ingredients. Which means they could also include up to 30% non-organic ingredients. This should be specified in the ingredients, as each item will be labelled (for example: Organic whole grains oats, organic sugar, cinnamon, baking soda, vanilla.) (source)
- Specific ingredients are not required to be organic in multi-ingredient foods. Some examples include enzymes in yogurt, pectin in fruit jams, or baking soda in baked goods. You can actually see a full, detailed list of both the synthetic and non-synthetic ingredients to which this rule applies here (scroll down quite a ways).
- There are a large number of synthetic substances allowed for use in both organic crop production and livestock production. I was particularly surprised by some on the list for livestock – they included vaccinations as well as quite a number of pharmaceuticals that may be administered by registered veterinarians or for specific health-related purposes. See the list for yourself.
- While organic requirements are certainly a far, far cry from the standards for conventional livestock, they still do NOT guarantee that animals are grazing on pasture or free-roaming to the degree that you might think. For ruminants (ie. cows), they are required to eat outdoors during grazing season, or when the weather is not inclement (a term left up for interpretation), but between the official grazing seasons (when the grass is not actively growing, especially in more Northern climates), they are typically housed in barns and fed grains. For poultry, they are only required to have “access to the outdoors” but this does not equate to free-ranging, outdoor-roaming birds in most circumstances. Usually it’s more of an open-concept barn (ie. no cages), where there is at least one door leading outdoors which the birds may or may not take advantage of. Many of them are so used to being indoors that they don’t automatically seek out the door that will lead them to pasture if they are not specifically led there. You can read some of the rules here, or something like this very detailed organic certification document (this one is for Washington State in particular) here.
All that said, I’m not saying don’t buy organic. In fact, I will still frequently buy organic over conventional, particularly when it comes to fats, meat and poultry, dairy, and produce (like the Dirty Dozen), because I still feel that it’s a choice for the better (both environmentally and for our family).
But even better than organic? Buy local, talk to farmers, visit the actual farms, ask really good questions about how produce is grown or animals are raised. This is a far more reliable way to know what you’re getting than just looking for that certified organic logo.
6. 100 calories
Just because a package says it only contains “100 calories” doesn’t make it better or different than any other processed junk or snack food, nor does it contain healthier ingredients. All they are is smaller. Hence the 100 calories.
It’s basically just a couple bites, so the 100 calories is simply based on the serving size. Which should indicate to you how many calories you’re getting with the regular size (most of which probably come from sugar or bad fats, but that’s another story)!
7. No Trans Fat
This one is interesting. Food manufacturers can claim this even if the food actually contains trans fat. What, you say? Isn’t that straight out lying?
Well, here’s the thing: If the total amount of trans fat is less than 0.5 grams per serving, then the package and nutrition facts label can state that the product contains 0 grams of trans fat. It’s madness, right? And yet, completely legal. Check out the FDA information on ingredients, packaging and labeling.
The better way to avoid trans fats (other than simply avoiding processed foods, refined oils and bad fats themselves, which is the very BEST way), is to look carefully at the ingredients list.
What you want to avoid is anything with the words “hydrogenated oils” OR “partially-hydrogenated oils” or even “shortening” (some kinds of shortening are great, like palm shortening, but when we’re talking about processed foods, you want to just avoid it).
8. Naturally Sweetened
What does a “natural sweetener” mean in the food industry? It’s hard to say. Take for instance Pepsi Next, which came out a couple years ago. It’s advertised as being “sweetened naturally”, and yet a quick glance at the ingredients confirms that the second ingredient (after water) is still plain old, white, refined sugar.
So where does the “naturally” claim come in? The fact that the sugar content is reduced with the use of Stevia. But that’s only 30% of the sweetening. The other 70% means we’re still drinking a canful of sugar.
Another trick in the food industry is to use fancy-schmancy sounding names like “evaporated cane juice”, which sounds nicer than sugar, doesn’t it? Except that’s all it is. It isn’t raw or unrefined, and it’s a far cry from raw honey. It’s just sugar cane that’s been ground up, dried and turned into granulated sugar. Oh wait… isn’t that??? Right. Sugar.
9. No Sugar/Reduced Sugar
Possibly even worse than false claims of being naturally sweetened are the bold claims of “no sugar” or “reduced sugar” or “no added sugar”. Which sounds really good at first glance.
Except that what this equates to is not a sweetener-free product, but rather an artificially-sweetened product. In almost every instance you see this term (unless it’s something that doesn’t actually need sugar, like plain applesauce), turn to the ingredients and you’ll find something like:
- sacharin, to name a few.
Though consuming less sugar is a good thing, accomplishing it by way of artificial sweeteners is not so great (in fact, it’s actually dangerous).
10. With vitamins and minerals
Yes, but are they naturally occurring in the food OR are they synthetic and added in during processing???
Vitamin Water is an example I love to rant about. For all of their cute marketing quips on the side of the bottle, there’s nothing wholesome about this drink. For one thing, sugar is the second ingredient next to water. Strike one. (Well, unless it’s sugar alcohols and color in the 0 calorie version…)
For another, there is absolutely no food substance in these drinks that is contributing to the vitamins and minerals they contain. Which means they’re as synthetic as what you’d get from a Flinstone or Centrum multi-vitamin. Strike two. This isn’t real food, and these aren’t the nutrients you’re looking for.
11. Whole Grains
These “Whole Grain” labels are popping up more and more, but there are a few tricks to watch out for.
1) The whole grains might exist, but they could be wayyyy down the ingredient list in a supporting, not starring role. In other words, you’re getting a mostly refined product with just enough whole grains so they can stick it on the label.
2) It could be whole grains that really don’t give you any health benefit. Take this Chex cereal, for example. The “whole grain” in this is “whole grain corn”. Which we know is a GMO product, full of pesticides, not to mention the fact that we already get too much in our diets, and its not a particularly nutrient-dense grain to start out with, but especially in its processed state.
(Then add in all the hydrogenated fats, canola/soybean oil, preservatives, and sugars in this cereal and I really couldn’t give a rip whether it’s “whole grain”, “gluten free” and has “no artificial colors or flavors”.)
12. Made with…
Often the “real” thing a food is supposedly made with (ie. the cranberry in your cranberry juice, the fruit in a child’s fruit snack, the strawberries in the Strawberries’n’Cream oatmeal) is actually so far down the ingredient list you might miss it.
Which means there’s hardly any of it. Ingredient lists work by starting with the most-used ingredients then going down (in order) to the ones used in only very small amounts (like the salt, baking soda or spices).
And many times, the name itself has nothing to do with the ingredients at all. Take many maple-flavored foods. The maple flavoring is just that – fake flavoring and coloring, but NOT maple syrup itself.
Or how about this one…
Phew… did that make your head spin? Has all of the marketing mumbo-jumbo got you confused yet? Or angry?