All Natural … Really?

Processed Food: Trick or Treat?

Processed food ingredients can really sound more like a witch's brew

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

These verses uttered by the Three Witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth have become legendary, and the weird ingredients they talk about make us shake our heads in disgust. But at least we know what’s in the witches brew. The same can’t be said for most of the foods in our modern-day grocery store. Unfortunately big food companies have cast a spell over most regulators that allows them to manipulate us with advertising, make deceptive claims, and mislead us with ingredient labels.

All natural is one of those claims that makes most people feel better about the food they eat. After all, if it’s natural it’s got to be good, right? Well, as we’ve learned in my series “All Natural … Really?”, natural doesn’t mean anything. In fact, buying all natural foods may involve playing your own home version of the reality game show, FEAR FACTOR. Why? Check out some of these frequently used food additives that qualify as “all natural.” They might be a little more than you bargained for:

    • Beaver Anal Glands: This bitter, very smelly, orange-brown substance is also known as castoreum. In nature it’s combined with the beaver’s urine and used to mark its territory. In the processed food world it’s commonly used in both food and beverages, typically as vanilla or raspberry flavoring. Watch out though, you won’t find it on the ingredient list since processed food manufacturers can legally call it “natural flavoring.”
    • Cow’s Stomach: Known as rennet and derived from the mucosa of veal calves’ fourth stomach, this ingredient is frequently used in the production of cheese to curdle the milk. Often listed simply as “enzymes” on an ingredient panel, it can be very hard to know exactly what you’re eating when you buy cheese.
    • Hair and / or feathers: Called L-cysteine or cystine by the processed food world, this non-essential amino acid is made from human hair or duck feathers and is used as a dough conditioner to improve the texture of breads and baked goods. Again, since cystine comes from natural sources, you can eat “natural” and still have hair in your food.
    • Beetle Juice: No, I’m not talking about the 1988 movie starring Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis. This beetle juice is used in our food and is often called shellac, resinous glaze, or confectioner’s glaze on ingredient labels. Made from the secretions of the female lac bug, this substance is scraped from trees and branches then processed to be used on some of your favorite shiny candies and sprinkles.
    • Crushed bugs: Known as Carmine, Crimson Lake, Cochineal, or Natural Red #4 on ingredient labels, this red food coloring additive is made from insects like the cochineal beetle. Frequently used in yogurts and beverages to give them a ruby-red color, a cochineal beetle can be a tough to spot on ingredient labels since it can be listed as a natural color.

Eating processed foods can be like playing Fear FactorWhat’s so infuriating about these ingredients is how they can lurk in your food and you may not even know it. Whether they’re disguised as natural flavors, enzymes, glazes, or colors, you deserve to know if they’re in your food, right? Unfortunately big food companies disagree. Even after contacting Nestlé, Kraft, General Mills, Unilever, and Dannon, I couldn’t find out the truth. For example, when I asked if a specific product contained castoreum, I got the following response:

All of our natural flavorings are vendor supplied and are therefore proprietary information.

We do not explicitly use castoreum. We cannot speak for our vendors that provide proprietary ingredients such as natural flavors. I want to assure you that the FDA does consider this ingredient as generally recognized as safe.

Do you believe that? I know I don’t. Food manufacturers know exactly what’s in their food, even if the flavoring comes from another supplier. But the food industry doesn’t want you or I to know the whole truth. That would hurt their business.

So in honor of Halloween, I’ve come up with a few new lines for Shakespeare’s Three Witches. And just as these witches’ prophecies foretold Macbeth’s downfall, if we all speak up, the processed food industry will be in for some real change.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Oil from a beaver’s ass,
Beetle juice shines food like glass.
Cochineal bugs make things red,
Hair and feathers condition our bread.
Poor calves slaughtered for our cheese,
Yes I’m scared of these mysteries.
Processed food it’s a shame,
Lying and deceiving is no game.
Since you’re acting with deceit,
We’ll fight to know what we eat.
Big food companies we’ve had enough,
It’s time to regulate all this stuff.

As always, if you’ve enjoyed this post, please share it by pasting a link on your Facebook wall, liking it, or emailing it to a friend. If you have a chance and would like to learn more about my novel, Fat Profits, click here. And for more inside scoop on the world of food, please subscribe to my blog.

In honor of Halloween, I’m sharing this Halloween post from last year (originally published on October 30, 2011.) Believe it or not, it’s been my most popular post ever. Crazy!

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Simple is Always Good, Right?

Food companies are some of the savviest trend spotters around. They literally spend Hundreds of MILLIONS of dollars tracking and following trends. In fact, in some cases, they even help create the trends. Why? It’s all in hopes of selling more and more food. But when simple foods and short ingredient lists became the latest trend, did Big Food run scared? No–they did just the opposite. LIke a chameleon, they quickly adapted and turned the trend to their advantage.

Does that mean our food is really simpler? In some cases, yes. But more often than not, Big Food has merely hijacked this trend and leanwashed the truth so it can sell more food. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at a real life example to see Big Food hard at work.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve loved butter since I was a kid. When used sparingly, it’s a delicious complement to so many different foods. But over the years, butter manufacturers like Land O’ Lakes lost out as consumers drifted to spreadable margarine thanks to powerful health and convenience trends. Yes, butter manufacturers tried to fight back with whipped butter, but it just didn’t have have that smooth, easy to spread texture of tub margarine. Fast forward to 2003, Land O’ Lakes launched a new, spreadable butter that blended canola oil into butter to make it softer even when it’s cold. And when this invention got paired with the trend towards simpler, cleaner ingredient labels (unlike those on margarine), advertising like this bubbled up to exploit the trend:

With the ease and convenience of spreadability, three natural ingredients, and a tagline like “where simple goodness begins,” Land O’ Lakes spreadable butter sounds downright perfect, right? The sad truth is that while simple and natural ingredients can give the appearance of purity and goodness, you have to look deeper. In the case of Land O’ Lakes Spreadable Butter with Canola Oil, two ingredients caught my attention:

Sweet cream is a very pure, simple-sounding ingredient on a label. But in the United States, many dairy products are sourced from cows that are treated with growth hormones (like rBGH). These hormones are used to increase milk production and have been approved by the FDA (thanks to lobbying from the likes of Monsanto). But for good reason, not everyone is a fan. In fact, the United States is the only developed nation that permits its people to consume milk from cows treated with rBGH growth hormones. And a 2010 U.S. Court of Appeals decision acknowledged that milk from rBGH-treated cows varies from untreated cow’s milk in three ways that have real significance to consumers:

  1. Higher levels of  IGF-1: IGF-1 is a hormone that allows certain cells to grow. As the American Cancer Society reports, “Several studies have found that IGF-1 levels at the high end of the normal range may influence the development of certain tumors.” Although the scientific evidence is inconclusive at this time, the American Cancer Society goes on to say “more research is needed to help better address these concerns.” I don’t know about you, but I’d rather this research be done before a product is invisibly foisted into our food supply and called natural and simple. What do you think?
  2. Milk of lower nutritional quality: During certain periods of lactation, the milk produced by dairy cows treated with rBGH has decreased levels of proteins and higher fat content, indicators of lower quality.
  3. More pus in milk: Cows treated with rBGH endure many harmful side effects including mastitis, an infection of the udder. These infections lead to not only more pus in our milk, but also the increased use of antibiotics to ward off infections. Call me crazy but pus and antibiotics are two things I’m trying to cut back on in my diet.

Canola Oil is the second ingredient that caught my attention. Although billed as a natural, heart-healthy oil, the truth is the majority of canola is derived from genetically-modified rapeseed. If GMO concerns aren’t enough to make you blink, then consider this: most commercially produced canola oil is very highly processed and undergoes intensive manufacturing steps like being refined with hexane and then bleached. Does this sound simple or natural to you?

To confirm my suspicions, I emailed Land O’Lakes to see if its spreadable butter used rBGH treated milk and/or GMO canola oil. At first they dodged the question and instead blathered on and on with sentiments like this: “Land O’ Lakes, Inc. believes the environment has been increasingly better served by advances in technology.” [you can read the full text of their reply here]  Finally, after asking again, I got this reply: “The ingredients used in LAND O LAKES® Spreadable Butter with Canola Oil are not hormone or GMO free.” Huh, it’s as simple as that. While Land O’ Lakes spreadable butter may not appear to have the long list of chemicals that are in most margarines, it’s not nearly as pure, simple, or natural as it pretends to be.

So what can we do? Be vigilant, ask questions, and dig for the truth. You see, Big Food companies simply cannot be trusted to disclose all the information we want to know about our food. Although their disingenuous approach must change, for the time being we must assume that every time Big Food speaks, they are trying to sell us something, not provide us with the complete story.  And if you’re looking for a little extra help, check out my series All Natural…Really? where I explore foods that pretend to be natural or simple.

And how about your butter? Well if you’re looking for a replacement for your spreadable butter, here’s what I do. I buy organic butter. If I want some to be soft and spreadable, I use an old-fashioned butter keeper–you can find a wide selection of them online.

As always, if you’ve enjoyed this post, please share it by pasting a link on your Facebook wall, liking it, or emailing it to a friend. And for more inside scoop on the world of food, please subscribe to my blog.

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Sun Chips: Creating the Aura of REAL Food

The Sun is a frequent symbol of processed food manufacturers trying to elevate the benefits of their products

Imagery has always been a very powerful tool in marketing processed foods. When regulations get in the way of what manufacturers want to say, the use of iconic symbols and imagery has helped them bypass most restrictions in their quest to elevate their products and obscure reality.

One of the most compelling symbols in existence is the sun.  Since the dawn of mankind, it has been associated with a life-giving force. In many ways the sun is the very essence of nature. So it shouldn’t be surprising to see this symbol crop up frequently in packaging and advertising for processed foods.

 

Sun Chips is a prime example of a brand that taps into the power of the sun. Launched in 1991 as a healthier snacking choice, Frito-Lay has continued to build Sun Chips’ better for you, wholesome brand image. Check out this commercial from a couple years ago and see how the magic of advertising works:

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Visuals of sunlight, fields of wholesome grain, and picturesque landscapes provide compelling imagery that works subconsciously and lays the foundation for beliefs that Sun Chips are a healthier, more natural snack. In addition to these visual cues, Frito-Lay now bursts “All Natural” on Sun Chips’ packages and also makes several back panel claims:Sun Chips claims to be All Natural

  • No artificial flaovrs
  • No preservatives
  • No MSG
  • 0g trans fat
  • 18g of whole grains per 1 oz. serving

But is the Sun Chips story really so sunny? Unfortunately the answer is “no.”  Although Sun Chips may be healthier than some of their salty snack brethren, that really isn’t a very hard mountain to climb. With 140 calories, 6 grams of fat, and 120mg of sodium in a 1 ounce serving, snacking regularly on Sun Chips probably will lead to some long-term trouble. And when you consider how few chips there are in a 1 ounce serving (see below), you realize that an average Sun Chips snacking session is likely to have at least two or three times the calories, fat, and sodium.

Sun Chips use of a one ounce serving size really isn't representative of what people eat on a snacking occasion.

Besides it’s dubious nutritional profile, there are several ingredients that don’t seem consistent with Sun Chips’s “All Natural” claim:

  1. Whole corn: If you’ve been reading my “All Natural … Really?” series very long, I’m sure you guessed it–this is GM corn (genetically modified)–hardly all natural in my book.
  2. Natural Flavor: This sounds like an innocent enough ingredient, but as Eric Schlosser points out in his book Fast Food Nation, “The distinction between artificial and natural flavors can be somewhat arbitrary and absurd based more on how the flavor has been made than on what it actually contains…. A natural flavor is not necessarily healthier or purer than an artificial one.” Natural Flavors are also closely guarded secrets of manufacturers and flavor houses. My request for more detail on exactly what is in Sun Chips’ natural flavors has yet to be answered, but rest assured, if it’s revealed, it’s most likely a list of complex chemical compounds that would double or triple the length of the ingredient panel.
  3. Maltodextrin: In the case of Sun Chips, maltodextrin has been enzymatically derived from GM corn.  The result is a bland to slightly sweet additive that is a staple in processed food. To me, maltodextrin is to starch what high fructose corn syrup is to sugar: a highly processed, man-made concoction that bears no resemblance to its raw ingredient forebears. Although it is easily digested by most people, if you’re having gastrointestinal issues, monitor your consumption of maltodextrin since in some cases it has been known to cause extreme GI issues.
So, after raining on your “sunny” day, you may wonder “what are some good snack options?” Well, after walking down the salty snack aisle in preparation for this article, I realized there are a lot a “healthy” words like natural being bantered about–enough so that I promise there will be more snack blog articles to come. That said, here’s my recommendation: make a real effort to minimize salty, processed snacks in your diet.  If you’re already big consumer of them, I have a couple suggestions:
  • Never eat out of the bag, it’s just too dangerous. If you’re going to indulge, get out a small bowl and control your portion.
  • Try replacing a serving or two a week with a serving of cut up veggies. Then each week, replace another of your salty snack servings with veggies until you’ve reduced your addiction to an occasional treat. A piece of fruit like an apple is also a good replacement option.
  • Good quality nuts are also a good alternative. But you’ve got to remember, nuts are packed with calories–a little goes a long way. So don’t go binging on the whole bag or jar.

As always, if you’ve enjoyed this post, please share it by pasting a link on your Facebook wall, liking it, or emailing it to a friend. And for more inside scoop on the world of food, please subscribe to my blog.

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High Fructose Corn Syrup: All Natural Really?

All sugars aren't created equalAre you confused about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)? I’m not, but I’m convinced the manufacturers of HFCS are trying to confuse us, despite what they might say. But confusion is one of the tried and true tools of the processed foods industry. Their tactic: if consumers don’t know what to believe, chances are they won’t take steps towards change–especially if it’s inconvenient. So, let’s try to set the record straight.

First, let’s take a look at what the corn industry is saying about HFCS. In its latest advertising, the Corn Refiners Association’s (CRA) feigns interest in resolving all the confusion offer HFCS.  Set in a bucolic farm setting, the actress says she’s done her research and “corn sugar or cane sugar, your body can’t tell the difference.” She goes on to conclude, “sugar is sugar.” Yes, by the end of the ad, the CRA has pulled their sleight of hand and renamed HFCS ‘corn sugar.’  How magically delicious, right?  I don’t think so, but you take a look and see:

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The truth is, if you look at all the research and different studies published, there is a decidedly MIXED opinion on HFCS–hardly the hands-down win the commercial would like you to believe. Furthermore, a large portion of the pro-HFCS has been funded by Big Food Companies.  Yes, that’s another one of the processed food industry’s dirty secrets.  If you’re curious about how it happens, check out the ABC News story entitled “Is ‘Big Food’s’ Big Money Influencing the Science of Nutrition?”

Another claim the Corn Refiners Association has made in their advertising is that HFCS is natural.  Here, check out this birthday party throw-down between two moms:

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The truth is, HFCS is anything but natural. Unfortunately, as we’ve learned time and again in my “All Natural…Really?” series, “natural” has become a meaningless claim that processed food companies use to confuse consumers.  For example, in the case of HFCS, it’s made with genetically-modifed corn. HFCS is also the result of an extraordinarily intensive process involving a series of enzymatic and chemical reactions. In fact, as one pro-HFCS group states, “the corn undergoes so much processing, and the products of the processes are so removed from corn that there is no detectable corn DNA present in HFCS.” Is that supposed to make me feel better? It doesn’t, but it confirms for me that HFCS is no where near what I consider natural.

To top things off, apparently the FDA isn’t too fond of how CRA is renaming HFCS “corn sugar” and their advertising tactics. According to a MSNBC report, the FDA has warned the CRA that ‘Corn sugar’ is false advertising.

So what’s my approach on HFCS and my diet? It’s simple, but it’s not what most people want to hear:

  • Eliminate as much HFCS from your diet as you can.  HFCS is in everything, so it’s going to be hard, but do your best.
  • Don’t replace HFCS with artificial or pretend all-natural zero-calorie sweeteners–keep them to a minimum as well
  • Choose real, natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, or coconut palm sugar  (preferably organic) but remember to use them sparingly

If you’re interested in learning more about corn and the secrets Big Food is hiding about corn and HFCS, I highly recommend the movie King Corn.  I’ve included a clip from the movie below, but it’s totally worth watching the whole movie (check it out on Netflix here).

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Finally, if you need a laugh after all this, check out Saturday Night Live’s spoof of the CRA’s “Party” ad.  It would be funny if it weren’t so true. You can see this video by clicking here.

As always, if you enjoyed this post, share it with your friends by pasting a link into your Facebook feed, liking it, or emailing it to a friend. And for more inside scoop on how the food industry’s trying to fool us, subscribe to my blog here.

[NOTE: Updated post in June 2012 to revise natural sweetener recommendations–removing agave and adding some less processed alternatives like maple sugar and coconut palm sugar.]

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Wesson All Natural Vegetable Oils: Warning! Slick Road Ahead

Wesson Oil Isn't As All Natural as it claims to be

So do you use Wesson oils?  I know my family did for years.  In fact, I remember the days when Brady Bunch mom Florence Henderson pitched the vegetable oil regularly.  Does this print ad jog your memory?  Yes, Wessonality!

Florence Henderson acting as spokesperson for Wesson Oils

Indeed, the 60’s and 70’s were the heyday for processed food.  I call it the Tang Era.  In those days, processed foods were still new, innovative … and in the case of Tang … space age.  Somehow chemicals, artificial ingredients, preservatives and fortification ruled vs. Mother Nature.  Heck, Chiffon margarine even mocked Mother Nature.  Remember?

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A lot has happened since those days.  Trends like “fat free” and “low carb” have come and gone, and in their place they’ve left a more skeptical consumer.  In many ways, today’s marketplace has taken a complete, 180 degree turn from the 70’s.  Nowadays consumers don’t trust processed food companies, so claims like “natural” and “organic” are driving growth.  A recent report of grocery purchases shows that “U.S. sales of natural/organic food and beverages grew 9%, to nearly $39 billion.”

Never ones to give up, however, many processed food companies have been stretching and abusing the claim “All Natural” to help grow their own business – hence my series “All Natural … Really?”  Now I’m not sure exactly when Wesson hitched itself to the “All Natural” trend, but the fact that they do is alarming for two reasons.  First, most vegetable oils, including Wesson, are processed by chemical extraction.  Solvents like petroleum-derived hexane apparently produce much higher yields than the traditional, mechanical extraction techniques.  Second, Wesson oils are made with genetically-modified ingredients (corn, soybeans, or rapeseed – aka canola) in the manufacturing of their oils.

So in what way is Wesson Oil “natural”?  To be honest, I can’t think of one, and it appears that there are quite a few people that agree with me since ConAgra (owner of Wesson Oil) is now facing two class-action lawsuits recently filed in New York and California.  Perhaps the old Chiffon commercial had the “lesson” right after all … “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!”

Now if you are a regular user of Wesson or other popular brands like Crisco or Mazola (both of which also use chemical extraction processes and genetically-modified ingredients) you may be wondering, what should I use instead?  Certainly there are lots of different opinions on this question, but here is what do.  First, I always try to buy organic.  Second, I select from one of the oils on the chart below depending on what I’m making since some oils withstand heat better than others.  Also it’s important to note that although these oils may be “safer” to use than Wesson, you still need to eat a balanced diet where fats and oils are used judiciously.

If you want to share your point of view or add some additional thoughts, please click on the “comment” section below.  Also, thanks go out to Renae Maslonkowski, one of my Facebook page fans, for the idea for this installment of my on-going series “All Natural … Really?”  If you want to suggest a post idea, to keep up with the latest installments of my blog, or to follow the release of my book, FAT PROFIT$, please friend me on Facebookfollow me on Twitter, and sign up for free email updates.

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  • About Me:

    Bruce Bradley

    Bruce Bradley

    I'm a father, food advocate, consultant, and author.

    Bruce is a former processed food exec turned food advocate, blogger, and author.

    Before his food advocacy work, Bruce worked for over fifteen years as a marketer at companies like General Mills, Pillsbury, and Nabisco. As one of the only former processed food marketers actively speaking out about concerns over the food we eat, the media often seeks Bruce out for his honest perspective. His 2011 interview, Confessions of a former Big Food Executive, was one of Grist online's Top 10 clicked stories for 2011.

    Bruce now writes, performs speaking engagements, and provides business strategy and marketing consultant services to help ethical, sustainable businesses reach their potential.

    Bruce graduated with an MBA from Duke University and a B.A. from Davidson College. Born and raised in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, he now lives in Minneapolis, MN with his son and their dog, Katie.

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