When it comes to food manufacturing, processes that were once secretive are now becoming more transparent as savvy modern consumers demand to know what’s in their food. As organic food goes mainstream, high fructose corn syrup becomes public enemy No. 1, and average Americans try to eat healthier diets, manufacturers are racing to keep up with changing tastes and buying preferences.
But how much do you really know about what you’re eating? Unless you live on a farm and grow everything yourself, the answer is probably, “Not too much.” If you’re like 83% of shoppers who buy their food products at the grocery store, read on to find out a few of the most shocking secrets food manufacturers won’t tell you.
1. ‘All natural’ means absolutely nothing
Pick up a box of granola bars or even a package of cookies and you’re likely to see the words “natural flavors” emblazoned across the box. But be careful — this is nothing but a marketing ploy.
The term “organic” is highly regulated and cannot be used without adhering to a whole bunch of strict standards. Using the word “natural,” on the other hand, is a lot hazier. It’s so poorly regulated that manufacturers use it even when their products are full of artificial ingredients (in addition to those natural ones they advertise, which may be nothing more than salt and sugar). Look past this misleading label and read all the ingredients before you purchase.
2. You shouldn’t always fear ingredients you can’t pronounce
It’s true that you should know what’s in the foods you buy. But even if you stumble across a mysterious ingredient, you shouldn’t necessarily drop the box and run screaming for the produce section.
Ph.D. Kantha Shelke brings up some valid examples: “Take riboflavin, cobalamin, and pyridoxamine. They’re big words and sound like things you don’t want in your food, but they are actually all forms of vitamin B, and skipping them can be detrimental to your health. Instead of being scared of ingredients you don’t know, educate yourself.”
3. There’s a reason food packages are often green
Consumers subconsciously associate the color green with better nutrition, so manufacturers will intentionally use this color to make you think it’s healthier. One study offered shoppers two identical candy bars — one with a red label, one with a green. The subjects were more likely to think the green label was the more nutritious item.
4. Your cheese might not be cheese
Ever notice how some cheese is much cheaper? There’s a reason for that.
Look closely at what you’re purchasing before you attempt to save a buck. If it says “cheese product” and comes individually wrapped, then it’s really made with processed milk protein concentrate or whey protein concentrate. According to delish.com, “If the product says ‘processed cheese,’ ‘prepared cheese,’ or ‘cheese food,’ it’s 100% not actually cheese.”
While these are perfectly edible substitutions, real cheese lovers know that the sacrifice in taste is not worth the cost savings. Stick to the real stuff instead.
5. Multigrain and whole grain are not interchangeable
Multigrain means that the manufacturer used many different types of grains. Whole grain means they used all parts of the grain kernel, which is healthier since it means the bread contains healthy plant compounds and fiber.
Manufacturers count on consumers getting confused over this distinction and thinking all these products are similarly healthy.
6. Synthetic flavors are necessary
Some people reject synthetic flavors out of hand and assume manufacturers use them because they’re cheaper. In reality, manufacturers often use synthetics because they have to.
Take vanilla, for example. Your body can’t tell the difference between the artificial and the natural variety. Pure vanilla comes from a bean in an orchid, which not only requires resources to grow, but is in limited supply. Meanwhile, artificial vanilla can be infinitely produced to meet demand and has undergone extensive safety testing.
7. There might be ground up bugs in your food
If you notice the words “carmine” or “cochineal extract” on the ingredients list, beware: You’re about to eat crushed up bugs.
Food manufacturers use insects to color foods red instead of the chemicals Red 40 and Red 3, which have come under fire for being linked to hyperactivity in kids and extreme allergic reactions. With side effects like that, it might be better to just eat the bugs.
8. There are 56 different names for sugar
Most Americans eat way too much sugar, which can lead to health problems ranging from heart disease to diabetes. But when you’re checking the label, don’t just seek out the “s” word. Manufacturers have a few ways of sneaking extra sugar into most products, and since some studies found that sweet stuff is as addictive as cocaine, it’s best to educate yourself on how much you’re eating.
If you see any of the following, be wary: barley malt, dehydrated cane juice, golden sugar, molasses, Barbados sugar, demerara sugar, golden syrup, muscovado, beet sugar, dextran, grape sugar, panocha, brown sugar, dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, powdered sugar, buttered syrup, diastatic malt, honey, raw sugar, cane juice, diatase, icing sugar, refiner’s syrup, cane sugar, ethyl maltol, invert sugar, rice syrup, caramel, free flowing brown sugars, lactose, sorbitol, corn syrup, fructose, malt, sorghum syrup, corn syrup solids, fruit juice, maltodextrin, sucrose, confectioner’s sugar, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, sugar (granulated), carob syrup, galactose, malt syrup, treacle, castor sugar, glucose, mannitol, turbinado sugar, date sugar, glucose solids, maple syrup, and yellow sugar. Phew!
9. You’ve been topping your spaghetti with wood pulp
Cellulose, which is made from wood pulp and cotton, is a common food additive in products such as ice cream and grated parmesan cheese. It keeps products from sticking together, and it’s also a lot cheaper than real cheese, which cuts down the cost of manufacturing by a whole lot.
The good news is that it won’t kill you. Since human beings can’t digest it, it simply passes through without doing too much damage. Just don’t think about it too much.
10. There might be beaver butt in your food
If you’ve ever seen “castoreum” on your label, be warned: This common food flavoring is extracted from the sac scent glands of a female beaver, located near the anus. And even if you don’t see that particular ingredient on the list, it still might be in there because it’s classified as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) by the FDA, meaning it can fall under the umbrella of “natural ingredients.”
11. There are unlabeled ingredients in your food — and it’s totally legal
From GMOs to trace amounts of BPA and tiny bits of cardboard and chemicals, lots of questionable items might be sneaking their way into your food. While consumer advocacy groups have been vehemently fighting back against this practice, it’s a slow, uphill battle. The only way to know exactly what you’re eating is to only purchase whole foods like fruits and vegetables.
12. A chip’s crunch is calculated
According to expert Michael Moss, “The louder a potato chip crunches, the more people like it — and the more they will eat. When Frito-Lay used a $40,000 device that simulates a chewing mouth to test and perfect the chips, they discovered the optimal break point: Most people like a chip that snaps with about four pounds of pressure per square inch.”
13. You could be eating fake fiber
Natural fiber is a good thing since it helps to reduce blood pressure and regulate cholesterol. However, not all high-fiber foods are created equally.
In fact, some food products boasting a high fiber content are really stuffed with the fake version (not naturally occurring in the food), which may do more harm than good. Beware when you see ingredients such as inulin, maltodextrin, and polydextrose in high fiber products; they can cause gas and bloating.
14. Baked or popped chips aren’t really healthier
Any way you slice it, potato chips are not a food group. But still, if you do choose to indulge, you might be better off going for the real thing.
The FDA found that baked chips contain about three times more acrylamides than their fried counterparts, which is a big deal as research has linked this chemical to cancer. If you really want to indulge in a salty potato snack, consider baking your own at home with fresh potatoes and a bit of sea salt.
15. “Nitrate free” isn’t necessarily accurate
If you feel better about purchasing hot dogs or other processed meat products that say they’re nitrite-free, listen up: They might be just as dangerous.
Chances are, manufacturers make the nitrite-free version with celery powder, which sounds harmless but is actually not so innocent. Nitrites naturally present in vegetables have the same scary side effects as artificial preservatives and may even contain higher amounts. The best thing you can do for better health is to limit the amount of processed meat you eat in general.
16. Bottled iced teas are a total scam
Iced tea is healthier for you, right? Well, not really.
A cup of home-brewed tea has 50-150 milligrams of polyphenols — those are the antioxidants in tea that make it so darn good for you. But when researchers put bottled tea to the test, they found that half the tea contained less than 10 milligrams of polyphenols. Susanne Henning, a researcher at UCLA who has been studying the health effects of tea for years declares, “They’re mainly sugar water.” Save your money and skip the bottled tea in favor of plain old water, or brew your own at home.
17. New food items are likely to fail
It’s hard to create a completely new item — which is why manufacturers frequently create variations on products they already know will sell. According to one expert, 89% of new items fail, and line extensions are much smarter investments because they’re more likely to sell.
18. There are bugs in your jelly beans
Jelly beans and other shiny candies are often coated in shellac, a substance derived from an insect that’s native to Thailand. If you see “confectioner’s glaze” listed on the ingredients, beware.
19. Your meat might have ammonia
Ever hear of pink slime? That’s the filler that’s made from trimming and processing the meat left clinging to animal bones after processing. Manufacturers use ammonia to kill the bacteria and germs left behind, so that strong-smelling cleaning product could also be lurking in your taco meat. Yuck!
20. Food manufacturers are not all plotting against you
Somewhere along the way, the public became distrustful of food manufacturers in general, and many shoppers feel like everything is a trick meant to sell products. And while it’s true that increased sales are a goal of any manufacturer (otherwise, they’d all go out of business), that doesn’t always mean their methods are nefarious.
“It drives me crazy when people think all food marketers are just trying to pull one over on them. For every brand I’ve worked on, consumer research has been the cornerstone of everything. New products always start with solving a problem for consumers,” says Suzanne Ginestro, Chief Marketing Officer at Bolthouse Farms.
So is it all a big conspiracy? Maybe a little. But that doesn’t mean you have to feel awful about buying a box of crackers every once in a while, as long as you steer toward whole foods like fruits and veggies most of the time.