Lies My Grocer Told Me.

takahe83 takes on the embellishment of the healthfulness of certain foods.

I am always amused by the health claims on food; take, for example, the frequent “low carb!” claims on vinagrettes (of course they’re low carb – salad dressings are almost all fat) or even the “low fat!” claim on your packet of marshmallows.

Perhaps not so egregious but still amusing are some of the health claims on the “Naked Juices” that I often purchase with my fake student money on campus. …

Take my personal favorite, the “Green Machine” drink. Alongside the nearly 3 apples and fractions of kiwi and mango you have a list of added “boosts” like spinach and broccoli. Just how much spinach, do you ask? An entire 100 mg. Now, when I take a leaf sample in the lab, I’m instructed to take no more than a 50 mg leaf sample, and the general rule for eyeballing that amount is to take a slice of leaf no larger than the area of your thumbnail – that’s 50 mg. So adding 100 mg of spinach to your 16 oz drink is like adding two thumbnail’s worth of spinach to your smoothie – that’s not even one entire leaf of spinach by my reckoning.

This touches on a point several people made in Jamelle’s post on junk food taxes; part of the problem with assessing those taxes would just be defining what constitutes junk food. For all its alleged healthfulness, Naked’s Green Machine actually has more calories and more sugar than a regular Coke.

Other commenters advocated for better nutritional education for consumers, but getting people to make better food choices is made all the more difficult because foodmakers embellish their healthiness or, just as often, obfuscate how unhealthy they actually are.* Consumers conflate labels like “all natural,” “organic,” or “free range” with some sort of extra nutritional value in their food. But putting really, really fresh food on store shelves — pesticide-free, locally grown/raised, in-season — just wouldn’t work for Whole Foods; it would be too hard to give customers what they wanted when they wanted them (like mangoes in the middle of December) and in the amounts they wanted them. The government’s criteria for labeling a product “organic” or “free range” was created with a lot of input from agribusiness giants like ConAgra and retailers like Whole Foods, and what actually constitutes either of those things is markedly different than what consumers think they mean. So a food additive can be called “all natural” because of the way it’s made and not because the end-product is different from the same additive made “artificially;” a chicken can be called “free-range” if the coop it was raised in had a door that was open for a small time each day and allowed more sunlight in. (A lot of brands whose ethos is all-natural are actually just subsidiaries of big multinationals.)

Food companies are essentially making these semantic distinctions for a subset of middle class consumers who want to feel a particular way about their food purchases: environmentally responsible, epicurean, healthy.

I also want to toss this out there. I’m not sure what to make of it.

In one study, college students were given one of two menus. One menu featured French fries, chicken nuggets and a baked potato; the other included those same items as well as a salad. The French fries, widely perceived as the least healthful option, were three times as popular with students selecting from the menu that had the salad as they were with the other group.

“When you consider the healthy option, you say, well, I could have that option,” said Keith Wilcox, a doctoral candidate at Baruch College who is one of the paper’s four authors. “That lowers your guard, leading to self-indulgent behavior.”

The diners most affected by the presence of a healthful item were those with the highest levels of self-control, as measured by a widely used test. Those with less self-control were far likelier to order the fries in the no-salad condition; but when the salad was included, some of them opted for it.

*Like calling sugar “evaporated cane juice.”

14 thoughts on “Lies My Grocer Told Me.

  1. shani-o April 21, 2009 at 2:12 pm Reply

    part of the problem with assessing those taxes would just be defining what constitutes junk food.

    This is a good point, and one that I didn’t clarify in my comments on Jamelle’s post. I tend to think that anything that’s processed/prepared is essentially junk food, whether that’s breakfast granola bars, or Tropicana OJ, or stove-top stuffing. I take that position because there’s so much filler in these items — when there are 30 ingredients in a product that has ‘natural’ on the label, I get suspicious.

    The easy solution, in my opinion, is to become an ingredients reader. I flip a package over without even thinking about it now (this goes for beauty products, as well) and I know the ingredients that immediately make me put an item back on the shelf (high fructose corn syrup isn’t the only one).

    That’s not to say I don’t eat English muffins or whatever peanut butter is on sale, but I think we’d be better off being more aware that if our food comes in a box, a can, or a bag (and it isn’t meat or like, dried beans) it probably isn’t as healthful as the packaging would have us believe. I think I’d actually support taxing processed and prepared foods, not just chips and soda, while leaving whole grains, meat, produce and fish alone.

    • G.D. April 21, 2009 at 5:17 pm Reply

      But even reading the ingredients is rough. I mean, i’m not exactly sure what xantham gum is, but it’s in everything. It’s information that I just don’t know what to do with.

      • shani-o April 21, 2009 at 5:46 pm Reply

        So look it up. Xantham gum is a stabilizer, I believe. Not necessarily bad, but it’s not-food like that that ends up in your prepared, processed foods.

        • G.D. April 21, 2009 at 5:51 pm Reply

          no, what i’m saying is, it doesn’t do anyone much good at the point of purchase to be able to read an ingredient off the label, not know what it is, and make a judgment about it, you know?

          I was using xantham gum as an example, but this extends to just about everything after the first six ingredients in processed foods.

          • shani-o April 21, 2009 at 6:12 pm Reply

            I understand what you’re saying, but my point is that it’s up to us to educate ourselves on what we’re putting in our mouths, or stick to whole, unprocessed foods as best we can.

            Most (though not all, and don’t get me started on how some companies use Latin names) of the items on the ingredients list that we don’t recognize are additives that don’t do us any good. They’re stabilizers, thickeners, preservatives, and decaking agents. They don’t all hurt us, but they certainly aren’t things we would put in our food if we were cooking at home. I think that’s a basic thing to remember, and it doesn’t require any sort of vast knowledge of ingredients.

            Plus, ingredient labels are on everything. If you read enough, you get familiar with what’s what, you know?

    • quadmoniker April 21, 2009 at 8:19 pm Reply

      I actually completely disagree with you, shani-o. I think junk food is anything that has calories but no nutritional value. If you say granola bars are bad for you, where do you draw the line? Yes, brands like Quaker Oats have huge amounts of sugar in their granola bars. But plenty of other companies do not, and the bars are simply things that are ridiculously good for you pressed together. And who’s going to make granola bars on their own?

      Likewise, though I think pre-packaged food is bad for you as a whole, and has huge amounts of sodium, I don’t think it qualifies as junk. Plenty of brands take nutrition seriously and prepare solid, well-balanced meals that are nutritious substitutes for something home cooked. While it’s not ideal, I don’t think taxing an Amy’s vegetable and brown rice dinner at the same rate that one taxes a soda would do anyone any good. Even more basically, a frozen lasagna is at least going to provide nutrition and feel someone up better than anything a twinkie is going to do.

      People don’t understand the labels because they’re made to be un-understandable. Companies spend a lot of time getting people to pay a premium price for products that cost as little as possible to produce. While, individually, it may do people good to stop consuming foods with pesticides, it’s not clear that switching wholesale to organic spinach produced from a big farm and at a big plant in California from a pre-made spinach dinner would be good for the country as a whole. The problem is that no one eats spinach.

      As G.D. points out, is that we have a few wealthier people focused on organic, natural and fresh when those are just labels, and the real problem for the country is much more fundamental. It doesn’t do any good for Snapple to switch to real sugar from HFCS if people are still drinking Snapples all the time, for example.

      Better to stick to taxing things like chips, soda, and those awful pre-packaged cakes. For the rest of it, make fresh food cheaper.

      • G.D. April 21, 2009 at 8:27 pm Reply

        a frozen lasagna is at least going to provide nutrition and feel someone up better than anything a twinkie is going to do

        that’s some kinky-ass foodstuffs you be eating there, sis.

      • shani-o April 21, 2009 at 9:37 pm Reply

        You make fair points. Let it never be said I’m an immovable object.

        I do quibble with the notion that there are ‘plenty’ of companies taking nutrition seriously. Even if there are in rarefied areas in the Tri-State and on the West Coast, most Americans have easiest access to the ginormo-brands like Kellogg’s and Tyson and Kraft. What we’re exposed to is advertising for Quaker Oat’s sugar-loaded cereal bars, not Aunt Healthy’s granola bran fiber squares (or whatever). So even if Amy’s frozen burritos are available (they are where I live, but probably aren’t, in, say, much of Camden), they’re still more expensive and less familiar, and therefore less likely to be purchased than a Hungry-Man dinner, which is essentially a frozen box of fat and salt.

        Or, shorter: is a cheap blue box of macaroni and powdered cheese-food better for me than a cheap bag of Doritos?

        I’m not exactly arguing that we tax all packaged food (though I don’t have a visceral objection to it), I’m just saying, more packaged food has the nutritional value of a box of Cheez-its, than a bag of SteamFresh frozen veggies.

        (Aaaaaaand now I’m done with my exercise in naming foods. I really need to go grocery shopping.)

        • quadmoniker April 21, 2009 at 10:10 pm Reply

          No, those brands aren’t widely available, but much more so than they used to be, even in my little hometown. The main point I was trying to make is that you can’t selectively target brands; you can’t tax like, a SmartFoods mac & cheese and not tax a frozen food that’s much better for you, so better to set the bar pretty low. If you want to take a bite out of the bigger, badder company’s bottom line, tax the discretionary foods and do something to make fresh produce carted short distances cheaper. or end the corn subsidies, which would force people to rethink their ingredients.

  2. ladyfresshh April 21, 2009 at 6:33 pm Reply

    At this point unless you are chucking it all and going to grow your own food (and even then you will be affected by macro environments and what to use for seeds) it feels like nitpicking.

    While I definitely agree that foodmakers have muddied the argument but frankly the argument is no longer simple. Even natural foods are no longer natural with hybridization of seeds it’s possible you can no longer grow a natural variety of many of our current foods without pesticides because they are not longer in a natural ecosystem.

    A person can barely even drink natural water, this is the state of our world at this point.

    I’d argue we want to be lied to like you said:
    “Food companies are essentially making these semantic distinctions for a subset of middle class consumers who want to feel a particular way about their food purchases: environmentally responsible, epicurean, healthy.

    We don’t necessarily want to do anything about it, it’s the rare person who is that consumed or is even that romantic/nostalgic about farming. Most of us would still would rather buy it than grow it.

    i dunno all of this this seems extreme and while those extreme parties have created a bit of change in the food system (yay for chickens with cage the door open) i’m still not killing a chicken myself.

    bah i’ve lost my train of thought and i think i’ve jumbled things again
    GD will correct me i’m sure

    • G.D. April 23, 2009 at 11:57 am Reply

      i’m not advocating that people farm, and eating local is sort of a function of social and literal location. (Think the Park Slope Food Co-op). I’m saying that advocating for healthier eating assumes all kinds of things about people understand about “healthy eating,” and how the line between “healthy” and “unhealthy” is often a murky one.

  3. Steve April 23, 2009 at 12:12 am Reply

    Naked Juice tastes damn good though.

    • G.D. April 23, 2009 at 11:50 am Reply

      son. there’s this concoction by Bolthouse Farms called Perfectly Protein Vanilla Chai Tea that must be made from crack. It’s WILD good.

      But it illustrates my point. It’s kind of passed off and packaged as as this healthy, wholesome thing — peep the website ( — but it has tons of sugar and calories, and the ‘farm’ is actually partnered with Dannon USA.

  4. Leigh April 23, 2009 at 1:52 pm Reply

    Keith is a friend of mine! Love that you’re excerpting his research here! (And jealous!) 🙂

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