A blog post with real English words? Doesn’t that excite you and make you want to read? Do you think I’m being facetious? Then what do you think of “fruit smoothie with real fruits”? I’m quoting that from a billboard advertisement next to a fast food restaurant which I saw recently. What else should fruit smoothies be made of if not with real fruit? How did we come to a place where an ad needs to spell out that a fruit smoothie actually contains real fruit? How is that supposed to excite us?
As it turns out, when it comes to food, we have come to accept that it is okay for it to not be the real thing. Also, we take food packaging labels or advertisements at face value, and are not even aware of what’s actually in the food. For example, one leading brand of strawberry fruit snack has no real strawberry, despite claims of it being “made with real fruit”. What it does have is “pears from concentrate” and strawberry flavor. If you get a banana nut bread at a regular store, chances are it has no traces of banana. First time I saw a store-bought guacamole that doesn’t have any avocado, I was totally taken aback. If you ever made guacamole, you know how it turns black as it oxidizes. No wonder this particular guacamole always maintained its perfect green avocado color, because that’s exactly what it was – a food color. Examples like these are numerous. Vanilla in most processed foods comes from artificial vanilla flavor vanillin. The ‘butter’ you may be used to on the popcorn when you go to a movie comes from butter-flavor, not real butter. Some soups that claim to have vegetables, and ostensibly show big pictures of vegetables on the label, have more salt than dried vegetables. These are just a few examples of misleading marketing hiding real food ingredients. I’m not even talking about all the other food labeling tricks companies use including ‘light’, ‘all natural’, ‘contains whole grains’, ‘multigrain’, ‘sugar free’, so on and so forth. That’s a whole different topic for another day.
Flavor and color are important elements of any food. The history of food additives like flavor and color is complicated. It’s not that all flavors and colors are necessarily bad for you. But marketing them as real food is what bothers me most. At HIP, as part of our Cooking Matters classes, we help people to look beyond the labels and understand the list of ingredients in packaged foods. This knowledge is important for everyone. It helps people make the right decisions when they are considering different food options.
Next time you are out for your grocery shopping, take a look at the list of ingredients, not just what the label says. That’s the real stuff. You may be surprised to find out what you are eating. If you learn something new, let us know. Of course, the best option is to buy fresh fruits and veggies and prepare them the way you like it; you don’t have to rely on packaging labels or look at any ingredients list!
Wishing you health and happiness!
Executive Director, Hunger Intervention Program