On Being Tricked by the Food Industry

grocery store

by Kathy | Disclosure

The study of food labels has been a small hobby of mine for 25 years now. And I am still tricked from time to time. It’s like a gut punch every time it happens. Years ago it happened just because I didn’t know what I was reading. Now it usually happens because I’m not paying close enough attention. Or the labeling laws changed. The point is it still happens. After 25 years.

It’s become sufficiently discouraging to me that I am working hard to vastly reduce the labels in my life by buying local whatever I can and reducing my use of the rest.

I’m not alone in this. We are all tricked from time to time. Sometimes we trick ourselves, with a little help from the products marketing. We should know better, but we don’t. We can’t find or afford what we truly need, so we accept that things are basically ok. I did this recently myself. It went on for years. When I fully realized the error I was in a sort of shock, really. Then I picked up the pieces of my shattered ego and went about looking for a replacement. I’ll tell you all about it in just a bit :-).

Misreading and misunderstanding labels

Reading labels is tricky. That’s because tricksters write labels ;-). So we have to learn how to read them not only at face value but read them between the lines. What are the manufacturers required by law to state? What are they permitted to leave out? What does it mean when the bold labels on the front don’t match up with the tiny print label on the back? For that matter what exactly do the bold labels on front really mean in legal terms? And then on top of all this, the laws change and different things are required to be stated and more things are allowed to be left out!

Decoding labels well takes some study and practice. You also need to be up to day on food news and labeling laws to do a really bang-up job. I highly recommend visiting Kristen at Food Renegade for her excellent series on decoding food labels. I was tricked myself by one of the items she decodes: “Better than Bouillon”. I’ll share my tale of woe with you. This isn’t the worst case where I’ve misunderstood a label, but it is a clear cut case where I was tricked by the label and not myself :-).

Before I began to follow the Weston Price Foundation’s dietary guidelines in earnest I was still very interested in food and nutrition. My friends and family had regarded me as a health food nut for years ;-). I knew a little bit about WPF. And I knew to avoid MSG. Matter of fact many years ago I was highly reactive to it and so and completely eliminated it from my pantry. I did however buy canned broth. Not tons of it but occasionally. Then I started making lots of soups and needed more broth. I didn’t want to buy the cans anymore and stumbled upon this little jar at Whole Foods. I thought it was an answer to a prayer! Food Renegade quotes the label as saying:

Better Than Bouillon concentrated bases are made from meat, poultry, seafood and vegetables. This gives them a richer, more robust flavor than ordinary bouillons. No added MSG, low or no fat, lower sodium: Better Than Bouillon bases have 1/3 less salt than ordinary bouillons.

At this point I think I must have been in a happy coma, congratulating myself on my brilliant shopping skills. I glanced at the tiny print ingredients and not feeling faint reading it, I thought; Not perfect, but pretty clean. This will do. My eyes skimmed right past the corn syrup solids and hydrolyzed soy protein since they were unfamiliar ways of stating that this product is loaded with high fructose corn syrup and MSG! And I wanted so badly to believe in my shortcut. I bought some, liked it and continued to buy more and more and eat more and more soups with this as the base. Well, it took a few months but my MSG sensitivity came back with a vengeance. I began the task of examining my diet to see where things went off the rails. At first I could find nothing. After a while my attention was called to that tiny label and I ran a few searches and learned what I was truly feeding everyone. I was shocked, mad at Whole Foods, mad at myself, mad at the manufacturer. Then I started making my own broth, never again to fall for this particular trick.

We will all make mistakes while learning to read labels and even long after we think we’ve acquired the skills and knowledge to read them well. If this happens to you be kind to yourself. It’ll happen to us all sooner or later. And that’s ok :-).

A case of tricking myself

It’s far worse that I was tricking myself at the same time with another food. It was organic and the best product available to me, or so I thought. Every now and then a nagging sense that I was repressing awareness of something truly important would surface but I’d just shove it back down again. It seemed the only realistic choice so I just didn’t want to look too deeply at it. What would I do without my organic ultra-pasteurized heavy whipping cream? I was aware it was ultra pasteurized but didn’t know much about what that meant. I knew Sally Fallon stated pretty flatly to avoid ultra pasteurized dairy, but I reasoned how much worse could it be than simple pasteurized milk? And this went on for several years. I never tried to educate myself on the differences in pasteurization.

Then kinda by accident I came to understand fully what ultra pasteurized milk was in terms I could digest. It has a shelf life of months. Six to nine months. In europe they don’t bother to refrigerate it at all. Here in America it’s in the refrigerated section only because the sight of room temperature milk doesn’t get people reaching for their wallets! Emotionally this struck a chord with me, making me realize this is a very unnatural product. It became associated with hydrogenated oil and twinkies in my mind. I was horrified. And very angry at myself for not taking this seriously when those nagging doubts would arise. Now be aware that we’ve bought this for years and it’s been a staple of our diet. I believe now that it was associated with some health problems that just won’t seem to go away. I’m still working to reduce them now.

This kind of label problem is totally psychological. Food Renegade aludes to it when she says “sometimes we self-delude”. I was definitely doing that, much to my later regret. If you think this might be an issue for you, take it easy on yourself. Take a deep breath and grab that item you just didn’t want to know more about … you love it so! Look up the ingredients just to be sure. If it’s ok you’ll have piece of mind. If not, you are now armed with the knowledge you need to make better choices next time.

Beyond reading labels

Reading your food labels seriously and cautiously will take you down the path. But only so far. The next hurdle in our way is the chance that any given product you’re looking at was made outside the US. Which means you know little or nothing about the labeling and food inspection laws of the country of origin. Or you might not have any clue about the country of origin. About 16% of all food in the US is imported, much of it from China. We’ve all heard and read about the troubles with adulterated food products in China. And of course, it’s not just China with these problems. They occur worldwide. That means they also occur here in the US. Food adulteration is a big subject all by itself so I won’t tackle it here. For now, just keep it in mind and try to keep up on food news as best you can. That should point out the most common cases so you can sidestep any problems.

While reading labels is fraught with drama …

Not reading them creates even more trouble in the long run. So dive in, the water’s fine! And we’re all in here with you, just trying to make sense of it all! Have you ever been tricked by a food label?

Links to learn more about reading labels

Links to learn more about food adulteration

This post is shared at The Prairie Homestead’s Barn Hop, Traditional Tuesday’s at Cooking Traditional Foods, Fat Tuesday at Real Food Forager , Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop, Gnowfglin’s Simple Thursday, Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday, Real Food Freak’s Freaky Friday and Real Food Whole Health’s Fresh Bites Friday.

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Kathy lives just outside of Austin with her husband of 20 years Barry. She has two sons one in college and the other grown and married :-). While not a Grandma yet, with two grown kids she remains hopeful. Kathy wants a world where everyone has fresh wholesome food and feels that cookin' like a granny woman is the surest way to get there.


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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Jill May 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Harumph!! Just last week. I picked up my container of half and half to add to my coffee and thought, “gee, the ingredeients section looks pretty big for just “cream” and “milk”. No wonder. It was cream…lowfat milk…sugar…and partially hydrogenated oil and about five other unpronoucnable ingredients.

What the what???? Yea, stupid me blindly reached for the “fat free” half and half by mistake. And of course, “fat free” only means that they add all kinds of fake, nasty ingredients to make up for the loss of flavor when the fat is removed. Shoot.

I kicked myself in the pants and resolved to look before I grab!!

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Kathy May 3, 2012 at 10:52 pm

Isn’t it funny how the eye sometimes just flies over that ingredient list ;-) I think I’ve gotten a little more careful as I’ve gotten older though, since it seems I pay in inflammation faster now …

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Jen May 4, 2012 at 7:40 am

I’m a lazy shopper. I got tired of trying to read the labels. There are very few things that I buy at the grocery store now. (Limited to mostly ingredients with one or two ingredients). You are so right . . . these manufacturers are getting wise to our knowledge of the crap they add to their products. So they are much sneakier about it.

Recently, there has been some backlash in some blogs about being so strict about what we eat. I don’t understand not being so if they only really understood what is in the products they are eating. It really is poison and slowly killing us. I don’t want to take 3 steps forward and two steps back everytime I eat processed junk. Thanks for the great post Kathy!!

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Kathy May 4, 2012 at 10:02 am

I wrote a little about this in my post being A Good Enough Cook. I think the 80/20 rule applies. I’m at about 80 percent WAPF guidelines and that last 20 percent bothers the heck out of me. But it is the part that requires 80 percent of the effort to tackle. So I’m working on it. In the post I explain that you’ll need to give up either fast or cheap to achieve high standards. I’m giving up fast :-). If I take a little more time develop firmer routines I think it’s doable. And yes it’s important. But it’s also important not too beat ourselves up for the gap.

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AmandaLP May 4, 2012 at 8:57 am

I went to Target last night, and was so saddened at the state of food in this country, I had to leave. (Well, I compromised with dark chocolate covered macadamia nuts). Every single item I picked up had chemicals, preservatives, unnatural ingredients, and more. The more I learn about the food system, the more I am afraid to eat outside my house, my coop, and the farmers market!

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Kathy May 5, 2012 at 6:57 pm

I feel the same way when visiting the supermarket …

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Allison May 4, 2012 at 12:51 pm

GREAT GREAT GREAT post!!!!!
In the past year I have become completely obsessed with reading food labels. It is totally unreal the crap we fed ourselves thinking it is healthy.

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Kathy May 5, 2012 at 6:59 pm

Thank you Allison for the warm praise! I think it takes a little obsession at least at first to get used to making sense of food labels. Where I’ve gotten into trouble lately is by being lax about it.

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Laura May 6, 2012 at 12:47 am

The most recent one I noticed is the “So Delicious” Coconut milk non-dairy creamer. I really wanted to buy that one. Luckily I read the label before just grabbing it and throwing it in the cart. Just why do we need Titanium Dioxide in there! Isn’t that like in sunscreen? I normally don’t eat sunscreen do you? So infuriating.

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The Quiet Mom May 6, 2012 at 10:07 pm

Okay, so we went to walmart and found this boxed, ready to bake pizza with big letters saying: FRESH AND NATURAL. Hubby grabbed it. Then I read the ingredients… they are using HFCS and other unnatural chemicals in it. What the heck? I think the safest is one labeled Organic. This single word explains it all.

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Granny G. July 17, 2012 at 9:52 am

I hope someone has an answer for me about tilapia. All I have seen was farm raised in China which immediately raises questions in my mind–especially since I read an article somewhere on the internet, I think–that farm raised tilapia from China is fed all sorts of bad things–human waste included. I would like to know where I can get tilapia other than farm raised from China. Help!!!

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Kathy July 17, 2012 at 10:43 am

As far as I know it’s all farmed and from China :-(. My son had requested this once so I did a little tiny bit of checking. Does anyone know of a clean source?

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Helen March 6, 2013 at 8:47 pm

I got caught this week, when I realised the blocks of rendered animal fat I had substituted for my regular one (I found in a different store) had been hydrolysed! I didn’t realise they did it to animal fats as well as veg oils! I had been pleased as it was cheaper, but hadn’t thought to read the label properly. Eek! I couldn’t get rid of it fast enough! I then found a different brand which is all good. (Wik dripping in Australia).

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Kathy March 6, 2013 at 8:58 pm

I had a really similar experience with lard about 5 years back … what a shock!

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Rachel March 22, 2013 at 8:35 pm

Shock is also how I feel when I realize I misread a label and then I get angry. It really shouldn’t be this hard to provide healthy food for my family. So frustrating.

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