There are some real favorites on this list, and we are sorry.
Quick! Define the word “food” without thinking about it.
Done? We can’t hear you, of course, but we’re guessing you blurted out something along the lines of, “It’s stuff that you eat.”
We’re comfortable with this guess, because it’s what we said when someone tried this experiment on us. It’s what everyone says. Unfortunately, this knee-jerk definition starts to break down under scrutiny.
Geophagia, or the practice of eating dirt, is more widespread than you think. Does that make dirt “food”? At this point, you might amend your definition. Okay, then. Food is “stuff that you eat that the bulk of your culture accepts as a thing you should eat.”
That’s closer, but consider the items on this list. They’re completely socially acceptable. In some households, it would be weird if you didn’t eat these things. But look a little bit closer at the ingredient lists on these products. You can eat them; they are edible. But are they really “food”?
We’ll revisit this question at the end of the list. First, the imposters:
1. Virtually All “Cream” Centers
Snack cakes are a staple of American cuisine. They’re there at Little League games, at Scouting activities, and you might find them in limited doses at school holiday parties.
Notice, however, that no self-respecting mass-market snack cake lists “cream” as an ingredient.
You might see “creme.” You might just see “filling.” But there’s no “cream,” because “cream” implies dairy, and dairy goes bad.
Instead, the gunk inside your favorite snack cake or sandwich cookie is probably some blend of oil solids and sugar. There might even be some beef fat thrown in for good measure. Basically, it’s sugared lard, which does not sound as all-American as “creme.”
2. Pancake Sauce
Real maple syrup is expensive. Real maple syrup is rare. Real, honest-to-goodness maple syrup requires 40 gallons of maple sap to the gallon. That’s it. No other ingredients.
Odds are, you didn’t grow up on real maple syrup. The top brands don’t sell it. The country’s favorite pancake sauce is depressingly mundane.
It’s about as far from the long-boiled blood of a distant tree as you can get: It’s just boring old corn syrup with a little food coloring.
Corn syrup is “food,” we guess, but you can’t make it in your home kitchen. Only scientists can make high-fructose corn syrup, because only scientists know how to render a bunch of glucose molecules from a kernel of corn. Are pancakes “science food”?
3. Dessert Sauce
Actually, if you saw a product called “frozen whipped cream” in the grocery store, it’s probably fine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) won’t let companies call something “cream” unless it’s made of actual dairy.
That’s why the most popular frozen whipped-cream–like products call themselves “toppings,” which is technically accurate, because who eats whipped cream on its own?
So, if that stuff isn’t actual cream, what is it? You won’t be surprised to learn that it’s made mostly from hydrogenated vegetable oils, high-fructose corn syrup, and other ingredients like xanthan and guar gums.
Oh, and if you didn’t follow that source link, note that it’s from The Eagle, a trustworthy newspaper out of Bryan, Texas. But The Eagle’s discussion of frozen whipped topping is a response to a reader’s question about a recipe…for tuna salad. Tuna and guar gum go pretty great together, after all.
4. Nightmare Powder
You might be surprised at all the places gelatin turns up. It’s in gelatin desserts, of course, but it’s also in lots of pudding.
It’s probably in your marshmallows. It even shows up in cosmetics. There’s no getting away from gelatin.
That’d be fine if the stuff weren’t produced in the most ghastly way imaginable. You think the butcher shop is bad? The gelatin factory must look like a real horror show.
Gelatin, you see, is made from the boiled carcasses of pigs and cows once the butcher has extracted everything “edible.” Hands up if you just went vegan.
5. Supposedly Healthy Sweet Treats
All this hubbub about gelatin reminds us of an ingredient we’re always happy to see on a fruit snack package: carnauba wax. Carnauba wax comes from a Brazilian palm tree that just makes the stuff all on its own, completely natural-like.
The leaves excrete a waxy coating for their own purposes. Although carnauba wax is not “science food,” it is highly processed by the time it reaches the food laboratory. But it’s all natural in its original form.
What does this have to do with fruit snacks? Well, the ones that don’t use gelatin to get that spongy softness usually have carnauba wax. Those of you who just converted to veganism will get to know carnauba wax well. It is a friend.
6. Sort-of Cheese With a Different Name
We hate to be obvious, but you can’t write about “fake-food” food without mentioning this stuff. You know it. You probably grew up eating sandwiches like this: two slices of cheap white bread. One slice of “American” pasteurized/prepared cheese-food product. One healthy squirt of ketchup. Ah, the flavors of youth.
Of course that stuff’s not cheese. Is meatloaf fresh off the bone? The FDA is very clear about what is cheese and what isn’t, and you’d better believe they won’t tolerate mislabeling. Pasteurized processed cheese food is just “the food prepared by comminuting [pulverizing] and mixing, with the aid of heat, one or more of the optional cheese ingredients described in paragraph (c) of this section…”
Those ingredients? Types of cheese. Oh, you can also add “cream, milk, skim milk,” and emulsifying agents, water, salt, and flavorings. The point is that pasteurized processed cheese food product is made out of cheese—and also other stuff.
7. This Common Coffee Add-in
We’ve learned one thing about “cream” by now: It’s no good in processed foods. Even those jugs of flavored coffee “creamers” are mostly dairy-free.
Unless you’re buying straight-up cream for your coffee, you’re probably veering into territory that’s depressingly familiar by now.
Most top-brand coffee additives are made of trans fat–rich oils and corn syrup. Apparently everything that doesn’t grow on a tree is actually just hydrogenated oil and corn syrup. We could be hydrogenated oil and corn syrup for all you know.
The ever-useful health site Eat This, Not That! recommends using regular old milk in your coffee. You can also make your own creamer with condensed milk, regular milk, and honey.
Defining “Food” Once and for All
At the outset of this piece, we promised we’d get back to the question of what “food” really is. Is hydrogenated oil food? Is carrageenan?
We were raised to trust Webster’s dictionary, and that venerable source takes a broad view of the subject. According to that dictionary, food is “any substance taken into and assimilated by a plant or animal to keep it alive and enable it to grow and repair tissue; nourishment; nutriment.”
Well, we’re not sure hydrogenated oils and corn syrup keep us alive and enable us to grow and repair tissue. So the items on this list are not food?
Except that the dictionary’s second definition calls food “solid substance of this sort.” We guess edible science chunks are sort of like food.
So maybe they are food after all. We’re confused. Guess we’ll go eat dirt.