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Cooking using all-natural foods is a wonderful way to know what you’re eating, but it’s also a great way to spend a lot of money. Not everyone has the financial resources or time required to craft a 100 percent farm-to-table menu at home, meaning most of us opt for something a little easier with relative frequency.
But it might be time to rethink our eating options, especially considering that these 12 foods are notorious frauds.
Portions of this article were updated on Oct. 23, 2018.
1. Red Velvet Cake
Everyone loves red velvet cake. What’s not to love? There’s cake, there’s cream cheese, usually there are some sprinkles on top, and it’s delicious. #treatyoself. The thing is, we also love red velvet cake because the taste is comforting and decadent, even though the color indicates something, well, unnatural is probably going on.
Red velvet cake is really just chocolate cake with some food coloring (some people use beet juice for a natural coloring effect). During the Great Depression, a Texas company began selling food coloring and flavoring extracts that were purported to cut down on the costs of cooking. One recipe that Adams Extracts brought to life was the red velvet cake.
The story is mentioned in the 2014 New York Times article titled “Red Velvet Cake: A Classic, Not a Gimmick.” It goes like this:
After Congress passed the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938, shoring up regulations for food coloring, Mr. Adams [the company’s founder] figured he could sell a lot more extracts and dyes, and a red cake would be just the way to do it. Sometime in the 1940s, the company tricked out a mahogany cake [popular at the Waldorf Astoria where Adams and his wife enjoyed it] recipe with food coloring, printed it on cards and began plans to merchandise it alongside bottles of vanilla, red dye and artificial butter flavoring, which was popular when butter was rationed during World War II.
Today, red-velvet themed products from pancakes to candles are available all over, and it’s still a favorite, even if it really is just dyed chocolate cake. Want to make your own? You can find a red velvet cake recipe here.
If you go out for some sushi, you know you’re going to mix that fiery hot green wasabi in with some soy sauce (or just smear a dollop of it on top of every single bite of California roll, if you’re a real heat seeker). The catch is, real wasabi is incredibly expensive and the stuff we’re typically served at our local sushi joint isn’t actually wasabi.
The Daily Meal states, “The wasabi you’ve most likely had differs quite a bit from the real thing. Wasabi roots are difficult to grow, and a pound can cost up to $100, so a substitute is often made by combining mustard, horseradish, and food coloring to give it its iconic light green hue.”
The biggest difference is that, as with almost all culinary cost-cutting methods, the flavor of the product is compromised. Real wasabi has more of a pleasurable kick at the end, whereas the cheaper concoction will give you that runny-nose burn. That said, most of us will happily endure a little short-term pain over the alternatives: a long-term loss of money we’d have to spend on the real thing, or sushi without that signature spiciness we know (isn’t real) and love.
If you’re set on trying the real thing, here are a few ways to make your own genuine wasabi-flavored condiments at home.
3. Crab Meat
Hold on tight for this one, because if you don’t already know about this, then what you’re about to read will essentially do what Supersize Me did for the McDonald’s chicken nugget.
In Japanese, those iconic crab sticks (pictured above) are called surimi, which actually means “ground meat”—and they’re essentially the oceanic version of the hot dog.
HuffPost explains, “Surimi is made of different kinds of fish, which are ground together [and pulverized] into a paste. According to SF Gate, manufacturers add starch, artificial flavors, sodium and sometimes MSG.” Then, of course, it is dyed with orange food coloring to give it that authentic, crab-like look.
Unless you’re averse to food colorings, this might not seem like a big issue. And while it’s not as bad for most consumers as eating an actual hot dog, the HuffPost article points out that, “Because starch is often made from wheat, imitation crab meat is not gluten free. True crab meat, on the other hand, is safe for the gluten-averse.”
“On most nutritional counts,” it goes on to note, “this processed seafood pales in comparison to the real thing.”
In our opinion, it’s best not to ingest imitation anything, so try to go for the salmon, tuna, or yellowtail when eating sushi—or opt for vegetarian and vegan options like mushroom rolls and delicious inarizushi. Also, we are not listing a recipe for making your own fake crab meat because doing that at home could be…disastrous.
4. White Chocolate
White chocolate is hit or miss with most people (our favorites, though, include white chocolate Crunch bars and Hershey’s Cookies ‘n’ Creme). The funny thing about white chocolate, of course, is the fact that it’s hardly chocolate at all.
As described in this Greatist article, “Real chocolate contains three must-have components: chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, and cocoa solids (often in addition to other ingredients). But the white kind lacks chocolate liquor and cocoa solids—which means it’s also missing flavanols, the antioxidants that give the authentic stuff nutritional benefits.”
So, not only does white chocolate lack much of what makes chocolate chocolate, it is void of the few healthy components that come with chocolate, too. In 2004, the FDA got involved and mandated a law that required white chocolate to have a minimum of at least 20 percent cocoa butter and no more than 55 percent sugar or other sweeteners.
That way companies couldn’t basically put sugar on a stick and call it white chocolate. In case you’re curious, here’s a recipe for making white chocolate—not sure why you’d want to though!
5. Pomegranate Juice
You should probably be a little cautious about anything labeled “juice” or “fruit drink.” It is worth checking the ingredient list since more often than not, you’ll find some oddities in there—along with an insanely high dose of sugar.
That said—we know that pomegranates are incredibly healthy and do amazing things for your heart and cholesterol levels, but the problem with buying the “juice” version is that you might not be getting that healthful beverage you were after. Unfortunately, it’s not just off-brand companies trying to claim their products offer you the benefits of the pomegranate; magnate corporation Coca-Cola was actually sued by Pom Wonderful because they were putting out a drink and calling it “Blueberry-Pomegranate Juice.”
Yet, as discussed in this article from The New York Times, “the blend, sold under Coca-Cola’s Minute Maid brand, is made almost entirely from apple and grape juice. [The juice] is made up of 99.4 percent apple and grape juices, 0.3 percent pomegranate juice, 0.2 percent blueberry juice and 0.1 percent raspberry juice.”
The lesson here is to check your labels, or, to be extra safe, make your own juice. Interested? Learn how to seed and juice a pomegranate here.
6. Breakfast Syrup
Unless you’re putting the tap into a tree and getting the maple syrup yourself, it’s tough to say exactly what you’re eating when you drizzle Aunt Jemima (or any other) syrup over your waffles. Most likely, unless it’s labeled as 100 percent pure, authentic maple syrup, it’s probably a mixture of corn syrup, cane syrup, and a slew of natural and/or artificial ingredients and sweeteners.
Some people take this blasphemy very serious, so much so that there was a law being pushed forward that would make it illegal to sell fake maple syrup. The Huffington Post reported that “legislation would make the sale of fraudulent maple syrup a felony offense with up to a five-year maximum penalty. Currently, it is only a misdemeanor. The MAPLE (Maple Agriculture Protection and Law Enforcement ) Act aims to protect the producers of maple syrup.”
While it’s best to go with a natural fruit topping for your favorite breakfast items, we know that is not going to always happen. The next time you’re at the store, it might be worth spending the extra couple dollars to get something authentic rather than a jug of artificial (and clawing) sweetness.
Since maple syrup is all natural, here is a link to buy your own tap kit. Note that it does not come with a flannel shirt or wool beanie.
7. Bacon Bits
Bacon is one heck of a trendy culinary pick right now. And it’s earned its stripes—it is delicious. You can put bacon on just about anything and it will increase the flavor and texture while boding well for foodie photos. However, you have to be careful when eating it because while some products may be called bacon, there’s a possibility that they’re something else.
Enter bacon bits. Shockingly enough, those little nibs of goodness are actually vegetarian! Greatist explains what they’re made from: “Lacking any animal products, these crispy bites are made of artificially flavored textured soy flour and other ingredients including caramel color, maltodextrin, yeast extract, and flavor enhancers called disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate.”
So technically, if you’re vegetarian or even vegan, you could eat these little toppers, but we warn you, it may not be the best idea. If you’re really craving some bacon, you could always buy an actual package, cook it, and then refrigerate the leftovers for use when needed.
8. Supermarket Sourdough
Sourdough bread is a classic baked good that has a long history and a tanginess that’s won it a place in the hearts (and stomachs) of many a carb connoisseur. Unfortunately, if you’re grabbing your sourdough off a grocery store shelf, it might not be sourdough at all.
Matt Bowler, founder of Bowler Organics, explains: “Sourdough bread and pasta set themselves apart from quick-rise products, and even some ‘sourdough’-labeled products because of the presence of lactobacillus, a type of bacteria which naturally produces lactic acid during the fermentation process.”
“Some of the more prevalent ‘sourdough’ products will leverage acid as an ingredient added to the dough rather than allowing the lactobacilli to work their magic.”
Even if you’ve been satisfied with the flavor of your go-to faux sourdough, you’re missing out on some other key benefits of genuine sourdough, according to Bowler.
“Quick-rise breads utilizing commercial yeast products—whose rise-time may be less than two to three hours—essentially cheat the process during which those nutrients and enzymes are unlocked. This results in fewer readily-available nutrients our bodies can use.”
On the contrary, “fermentation with sourdough cultures, which tends to last between six and 36 hours, ensures active microbial colonies are working to break down grains and allow the finished product to be much easier for our bodies to process.”
Plus, all the lactobacillus in real sourdough starters means it’s full of probiotics, right? Not so fast! “Sourdough bread is not a probiotic product due to the high temperatures reached while baking,” says Bowler. “Enzymes are effectively deactivated between temperatures of 120 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit.”
That doesn’t mean sourdough isn’t great for your gut. Here are Bowler’s tips for buying bread that’s the real deal:
- Always look at the ingredients label first. Yeast should never be listed as an ingredient for naturally-leavened, true sourdough bread.
- No acids should be listed as an ingredient in a genuine loaf of sourdough. Sourdough is very simple and consists of only base two ingredients: water and flour. Salt is added during the process to facilitate fermentation and influence flavor. So, generally speaking, you should look for a basic loaf of sourdough to contain only flour, water, and salt.
- Other grains can be added while still allowing the bread to be classified as sourdough.
To find out if the sourdough bread at your grocery store is legit, “check the labeling, and if you have questions or suspicions, don’t be afraid to ask the bakers about the fermentation process,” Bowler says. “Ask how old their sourdough starter, or ‘mother,’ is and if they proof their dough at room temp or in the fridge, or both. A quick-fermented sourdough loaf will typically undergo between two and four hours of bulk fermentation and an additional two to 24-plus hours of during final fermentation. Cold-fermentation is usually performed during the final stage and will dramatically increase the sour flavor of the dough.”
Once you get your hands on a legit loaf, Bowler—who’s been nurturing his first sourdough starter, affectionately named “Josh,” for a year—has the following advice: “When experiencing sourdough products, I really enjoy tasting them plain first. No butter, cheese, honey, et cetera. There is a depth of flavor achieved by simple fermentation which sets legit sourdough apart from all other types of bread.”
“What’s more,” he says for the bakers out there, “your favorite style of bread can most likely be made with sourdough by substituting commercial yeast with some sourdough starter as an ingredient and modifying the process to account for longer fermentation and rise times.”
9. High Fiber Options
Fiber is an important part of any diet, and according to “High In Fiber: Everything You Need To Know About A High Fiber Diet,” a previous piece by HealthyWay, it’s essential to the health of our gut microbiomes. So rather than reaching for a slice of red velvet cake or even a bottle of real pomegranate juice when we need a little something sweet and tangy, we ought to opt for a high-fiber snack, right?
Registered dietitian Rachel Fine says this isn’t so cut and dry: “When it comes to packaged foods claiming to be high in fiber, it’s important to examine more than just the number on the label.”
She goes on to say that “plant-based, minimally processed foods are going to be your ideal source for naturally occurring intact fibers—such as beans, veggies, whole fruits, and whole grains. These foods offer significantly more nutrition per bite, and there is sufficient research supporting the wide array of health benefits behind intact naturally-occurring fibers.”
“Highly processed foods,” she says, pointing to ice cream treats, high fiber protein bars, and high fiber powders, “contain processed fibers, which are created in a lab from isolated starches. The research behind these fibers remains limited.”
She also stresses that “processed fibers lack additional nutrients and bioactive substances found in naturally occurring high fiber foods.”
Want a high fiber option that doesn’t contain isolated starches that hail from a lab? Rachel urges you to “compare a grain salad to a highly processed packaged food that is not usually high in fiber, e.g., cakes or brownies. Bottom line: If you’re trying to increase the fiber from your diet, do it from whole food sources.
Need some recipes to get you going? Check out the links in this piece on pulses.
10. Bottled Teas
Tea. It just sounds healthy. But odds are, if you’re reaching for sweetened flavored iced teas to quench your thirst, you’re actually sipping on what the FDA calls a sugar-sweetened beverage, or SSB, which in many cases includes sugar as the second ingredient (after water), along with preservatives and other unidentified natural flavors.
According to a resource from the State of Rhode Island Department of health, “the calories in sugar sweetened beverages can contribute to weight gain and provide little to no nutritional value. …Those extra calories can lead to other health risks including obesity, tooth decay, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.”
Not exactly what you had in mind when you decided on tea rather than soda.
Zoe Kissam, herbalist and marketing manager of innovation at Traditional Medicinals—the most popular seller of wellness teas in the U.S.—says, “Quality matters when you are buying tea. While there currently isn’t an FDA standard definition for products labeled as ‘tea,’ our products fall into the dietary supplement and food categories, which are both highly regulated. In addition to our teas being formulated by herbalists, they also use medicinal grade herbs whenever possible, which simply means that our products deliver on their intended health benefits.”
Of course, this isn’t necessarily what you’re getting when you grab a bottle of tea on the run.
Kissam’s advice: “If you are trying to make healthy decisions, it really doesn’t matter if you are purchasing brewed/steeped at home or bottled iced teas. The best thing to do is read the labels so you know what you are getting. There are options for healthy and clean products in most categories—you just have to be conscious about what you are buying.”
Want to ensure you’re consuming the highest-quality iced tea (rather than an SSB)? Kissam says, “We have a range of teas that work really well as iced teas, including Hibiscus, Raspberry Leaf, Green Tea Matcha, Nettle, Stress Ease, and Roasted Dandelion Root.”
Traditional Medicinals even has a recipe for roasted dandelion iced “coffee” that Kissam says is one of her favorites—it’s pictured above.
11. Sugar-Free Snacks
Registered dietician Paige Penick says, “One of the things that drives me nuts is when labels say ‘sugar free’ on the front, because it’s very misleading.”
Working to cut added sugar out of our diets isn’t the problem. Penick says “sugar-free” packaging is deceptive because companies “usually make up for the lack of actual sugar by adding in something artificial, which may or may not give people—to put it nicely—gastrointestinal discomfort. There are more pleasant and healthful ways to address your sugar cravings.”
The Vermont Department of Public Health hosts a simple and informative resource that can help consumers identify different types of sweeteners in their foods. It also points out that:
There are two types of sweeteners found in food and beverages: sugars and sugar substitutes. Sugars provide calories, or energy, for our bodies and increase blood glucose, as well as overall calorie intake. All carbohydrate-containing foods, such as breads, fruits, vegetables, milk, and yogurt, increase blood sugar, even if they do not have added sugars.
Depending on your nutritional needs and goals, some sugar-free snacks might be right for you, but you may also want to explore options that contain no added sweeteners—sugar or otherwise.
Oatmeal can be an extremely satisfying (and quick) breakfast option. And even if you’re a fan of steel cut or overnight oats, let’s be honest, almost everyone has their favorite flavor of single-serve instant oatmeal, too.
Registered dietitian nutritionist Kelsey Peoples says, “Instant oats come in a massive range of flavors now and often have little bits of fruit like raisins, apples, peaches, and dates.” So what’s the controversy?
“You may want to double check the ingredient list, as those little fruit chunks aren’t always what you’d think. One titan of the oatmeal industry has both Peaches and Cream and Strawberry and Cream [flavors] that use dehydrated apples with coloring and fruit flavoring—but no actual pieces of the fruit listed in the title.”
The cream? Well, she says that refers to “a ‘creaming agent’ made up of maltodextrin, plant oils, corn syrup solids, whey, and casein.” Looks like it might be best to add your own fresh or dried fruit and cream to plain instant, steel cut, or rolled oats after all.