Quit \"Real-Washing\" my Clean Eating!

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The world of food is a tricky thing.

Sometimes I envy our distant, distant ancestors who only had to worry about two things: 1. Can I eat this? or 2. Will it kill me?

Every so often somebody taught everyone else the answer to question two by keeling over after eating a poisonous mushroom, but at least food was simple.

Has Your Food Been Real-Washed

Then again, when I have a toasty gluten-free flatbread with butter, crispy homemade crackers with sharp cheese, or a piece of melt-in-my-mouth chocolate (like the stuff I’m giving away this week), I know I’m in the right era in history for my palate. Winking smile

It really gets my undies in a bunch, however, how difficult it is to navigate the staggering array of food choices we’re presented with and the equally overwhelming media coverage, conflicting research reports and doctors’ professional opinions on what actually constitutes healthy food.

It’s easy enough for some of us to simply live by the rule: Eat Real Food in its Whole Form. We shop the produce section, get meat and milk from a farm, and make just about everything from scratch.

But since I’m not a superhero and do need a break now and then, and mostly because I feel terribly sorry for people trying their best to switch from a processed foods diet to a real food diet, I often feel that the food industry deserves a strict talking to.

The increase in popularity of eating "real food" – as if this is a new idea, ha! – has been countered with an equally pervasive increase in "real-washing" our food.

Like brainwashing gets you to believe things that are not true, and "greenwashing" gets you to buy things that are made out to be natural but are not, "real-washing" is an enemy to clean food everywhere.

Real-Washing: a Definition

If you’ll indulge my inner Webster for a moment, I’d define "real-washing" as:

(v.) To place an unclear and not-entirely-true label on a package of food in order to make it sound extremely healthy and straight from nature. (also real-washed)

(n.) The abhorrent act of tricking eaters with healthy intentions into eating food that has been adulterated with chemicals, food additives, growth hormones, and other unnatural practices. Seen most often in American grocery stores.

Real-washed food may sound like clean eating, but it’s really a dirty marketing practice that makes it very difficult to learn to eat well. It feels as if one needs a college course in Real Food 101 before they can successfully transition from a Standard American Diet (filled with fake foods) over to a diet populated by healthy, traditional, made-in-nature foods.

The Buzz Words

To accomplish their sneaky sales tactics, food manufacturers tell people what they want to hear. Just about any food can be emblazoned with the terms:


Naturally Made

No Trans Fat

No Artificial Ingredients

All Natural

What does all that mean? It means the company printed a word on the package, and not much else – nothing worth noting, anyway, since you have to read every ingredient, every time, to know anything about your food.

The Nasty Labeling Laws

The way the food labeling laws are written makes it all too easy for real-washing duplicity to occur in the industry. Here are three real-washing tactics that drive me nuts and certainly trick a ton of unsuspecting people who are trying to eat right:

1. 0g Trans Fat!

A package can say "0g Trans Fat" or "No Trans Fat!" as long as it contains less than 0.5 g per serving. Manufacturers can create smaller serving sizes to compensate and still use their beloved hydrogenated oils. Check out these examples from I Love Butter on Flickr:

trans fat nutrition label

See the words "0g Trans Fat" emblazoned TWICE on the front and top of the package? Then when you read the ingredients, you can see that the second item is "fully hydrogenated cottonseed oil," which is a trans fat if I’ve ever seen one!

trans fat 0g nutrition label

In this example, the label demonstrating "trans fat: og" is easy to read, and there are TWO ingredients with the word "hydrogenated" in them, clearly demonstrating the presence of trans fats. Do you really want those 0.5 g per serving to keep adding up all day long until you’ve eaten five or six grams of toxic, artery-clogging trans fatty acids?

(I’ll answer for you: No. Learn more about trans fat and how it hides – and encouragement to get rid of it! – in this week’s Monday Mission.)

Don’t forget that these "interesterified" fats are just as man-made and even more unknown as far as side effects of long-term consumption go, and they don’t have to count as "trans fats" on the nutrition facts either:

Interesterified Soybean Oil

It is so hard to avoid trans fats in the grocery store, but as Tiffany reminded yesterday, do your best, stay the course, and don’t despair if you have a slip up!

2. 100% Lemon Juice

What’s the first thing you notice about this bottle?

lemon juice preservatives (2) (356x475)

Personally, I see the words "Lemon Juice" and then "100% Juice" first. I think that’s the plan. Read more closely – since I know you have time to do that in the grocery store with a cart full of fussy children – and you’ll see "reconstituted" and "contains 100% juice" and "with added ingredients."

Here’s the back to show what’s actually in there:

lemon juice ingredients label

Note the words "contains 100% juice" again to try to catch the label readers. The ingredients actually have three items that are not lemon juice or water, two chemical preservatives and lemon oil, which could be sourced in a lot of different ways.

I feel like this is akin to saying, "Here’s some 100% clean water to drink…although we did get it out of the toilet, and who knows what happened to it while it was in there, but it started out as 100% water and, oh of course, we added a bit of chlorine bleach before we served it to you. Drink up!"


I have a similar bottle of lemon juice from Aldi – not because I was hoodwinked by the real-washed label, but because I thought I had no choice among lemon juice brands (until I found some single-ingredient organic bottled lemon juice at Costco). Anyway, the words on this Aldi bottle include:

  • Nature’s Nectar
  • 100% Lemon Juice
  • Natural Strength
  • The Juice of 21 LEMONS
  • from concentrate with added ingredients

Bet you can guess which of the words is the most discreet on the front. The back side looks exactly like the Meijer brand pictured above, right down to the "contains 100% juice" at the top of the nutrition facts.

Real-washed! Trickery!

3. All Natural

You’ve probably heard that there are no current legal standards for the terms "natural" or "all natural," which is why they have become a joke, words without an ounce of meaning, when plastered on a food or beauty product.

Unfortunately, there is still an enormous segment of consumers who have no idea of the truth and are pulled in by the friendly, helpful, and earthy word natural.

  • "Natural" chicken can be raised on antibiotics, hormones, arsenic-and-poop-laced feed, and pumped up with MSG-laden broth to make it heavier.
  • "Natural" cereal can still be artificially fortified with 15 vitamins and minerals to start your day off right.
  • "Natural" eye makeup can still include parabens, known hormone disruptors, just because they’re made from something found in nature.

Corn is natural. Corn grows in the ground. But look at just a small selection of the food additives that are made from "natural" corn:

  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Xanthan gum
  • Dextrose
  • Maltodextrin
  • Modified food starch
  • Lauryl glucoside
  • Aspartame (an artificial sweetener I abhor!)
  • Malic acid
  • Methylcellulose
  • Polysorbate 80
  • Propylene glycol
  • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein (usually signifies free glutamate, which acts like MSG in the body)

Yummy! Anyone want some "natural" corn products on their plate?

Don’t Get Real-Washed, Get Clean Food!

almond power bars (3) sm

Almond Power Bars, from Healthy Snacks to Go

You too can be a label reader and savvy consumer with just a bit of knowledge in your tool belt. It’s worth it to feed your family well!

Just remember to be smarter than the manufacturers want you to be, read every word in the ingredients, and seek single-ingredient foods like "apple" and "rice" whenever you can.

The Back to Basics Baby Step Mini-Challenge will give you TEN simple steps to transforming your kitchen. Follow along for your Real Food 101 course that will empower you to persevere in the quest for real food!

What real-washing technique drives you nuts? Have you ever been snagged by real-washing and purchased something you later realized wasn’t as "natural" as you thought?

You will not want to miss a moment of this series – catch the previous posts right HERE and be sure to sign up for a free email subscription or grab my reader feed to continue following along.

Follow the Baby Steps board on Pinterest by clicking HERE.

You can also follow me on Twitter, get KS for Kindle, or see my Facebook Fan Page.

Watch for the newest KS eBook, Better Than a Box, coming out January 22nd. It is designed to teach anyone, from a rookie to a kitchen pro, how to reverse engineer favorite recipes that include processed boxes and cans that you don’t want to eat anymore.

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51 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. Beth via Facebook says

    The new yogurts advertising…all natural, only 9 ingredients! Bah. I do like that they use veggie juices etc for colors. It’s a step in the right direction, but really 9 ingredients to make yogurt?!

  2. says

    Great post. I too am so tired of food packages trying to make their food seem healthier by jumping on the natural/simple bandwagon.

    I do have to point out though that “fully hydrogenated oil” is not trans fat. Probably still not healthy, man-made, and one to avoid, but that is not a trans fat.


      • says

        Well partially hydrogenated is trans fat.

        To explain “fully”, I have to channel my nutritional biochemistry and organic chemistry classes of long ago :)

        Basically it has to do with the carbon atoms and hydrogen atoms in a fat molecule. I don’t want to get too technical, but if a fat has all its carbons surrounded by hydrogens it is saturated. If not then it is unsaturated.

        Only unsaturated fat can be a trans fat.

        Once you “fully” hydrogenate an oil, you have made it saturated again.

        Does that make sense? I hope so. I didn’t know the best way to get my point across.

        • Karen says

          Thanks! I understand about the fat becoming saturated when all the carbon atoms have hydrogen atoms attached. Is it the double bond between carbons that changes how the hydrogen attaches? What causes the double bond between carbon atoms, and does that also change the positioning of the hydrogen atoms? How does this differ between fully and hydrogenated fats? I know I could probably look it up, just need to refine a search term. Suggestions are welcome.

            • Cory says

              Though, one could argue, that since it is fully hydrogenated in a lab, using a catalyst, the reaction probably does not go to completion and by default produces a small amount of trans-fats, along with cis-fats.

              Chem lesson: The double bond occurs because a stable-ly bonded carbon atom has to form four bonds. In a lipid chain, it is usually bonded to two carbons and two hydrogens. If, for whatever reason, it does not form those four bonds, it will form a double bond with an adjacent carbon. This leaves only one bond for a hydrogen atom.

              Now for O-chem 101: Where the hydrogens on the adjacent, doubly-bonded carbons end up in relation to each other determines trans- or cis- configuration. Trans means the hydrogens (or whatever molecule, for that matter, but right now we’re talking trans fats which means hydrogen) are across the chain from each other – one on top, one on bottom. Cis- means they’re on the same side. In a lab reaction, you’ll get equal numbers of trans- and cis- molecules. In biology, production will favor one or the other.

              • Karen says

                Thanks for taking the time to explain this. I have looked at some other resourses using your explanation to understand some of it. I kinda, sorta follow it now in that I understand the chemical structure differences and that there are (primarily due to the food industry) an awful lot more differently structured fats than I ever imagined. Trans-unsaturated fats!? Naturally occuring trans fats!? I discovered that “Interesterified” fats can be made from trans fats, but further messed with to try to solve triglyceride problems.

                And I ended up back at the last statement of your initial comment and the whole point of Katie’s post. Man made, don’t go there. Awesome journey though, I learned something. Thanks to you and to Katie!

        • Cory says

          Though, one could argue, that since it is fully hydrogenated in a lab, using a catalyst, the reaction probably does not go to completion and by default produces a small amount of trans-fats, along with cis-fats.

          Chem lesson: The double bond occurs because a stable-ly bonded carbon atom has to form four bonds. In a lipid chain, it is usually bonded to two carbons and two hydrogens. If, for whatever reason, it does not form those four bonds, it will form a double bond with an adjacent carbon. This leaves only one bond for a hydrogen atom.

          Now for O-chem 101: Where the hydrogens on the adjacent, doubly-bonded carbons end up in relation to each other determines trans- or cis- configuration. Trans means the hydrogens (or whatever molecule, for that matter, but right now we’re talking trans fats which means hydrogen) are across the chain from each other – one on top, one on bottom. Cis- means they’re on the same side. In a lab reaction, you’ll get equal numbers of trans- and cis- molecules. In biology, production will favor one or the other.

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      Suzy/Karen/Cory – Wow! What a science lesson! Loving it.

      As far as chem goes, I get that a fully hydrogenated fat is no longer a trans fat. As for nutrition, the whole “man made food is bad” applies:

      “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises:

      Consumers can know if a food contains trans fat by looking at the ingredient list on the food label. If the ingredient list includes the words “shortening,” “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” or “hydrogenated vegetable oil,” the food contains trans fat. Because ingredients are listed in descending order of predominance, smaller amounts are present when the ingredient is close to the end of the list.

      Note: Fully hydrogenated oils do not contain trans fat. However, if the word “hydrogenated” is used without the word “partially,” that product may contain partially hydrogenated oil. Not all labeling is accurate and the word “partially” may have been wrongfully omitted on some products.”
      That’s from here: http://www.bantransfats.com/abouttransfat.html

      Now I still have a question for you science people. 😉 Here’s a gov’t definition of a “trans fat” that I’ve always heard too:
      ““Trans” fat is a specific type of fat that is formed when liquid oils are turned into solid fats.” So if soybean oil – a liquid – is partially hydrogenated, it’s a solid, right? If it’s fully hydrogenated, is it solid or liquid? I still have this feeling that anything hydrogenated is evil….

      :) Katie

      • Cory says

        I’m pretty sure if it’s fully hydrogenated, it’s a solid too, since if it’s fully hydrogenated it’ll be a saturated fat. But again, unless nature produced it, you’re not going to get a pure product, and even something labeled fully hydrogenated will contain traces of partially hydrogenated fats.

        I happen to agree anything we’ve tried to hydrogenate is at the very least suspect…:-)

  3. Karen says

    It was Hellman’s “Olive Oil” Mayonnaise that got me going. I have been making my own ever since, so can’t remember the exact details, but as I recall, there was actually more soy and canola than olive oil. I won’t consume either of them as they are both industrial and the majority of both are GMO. Since GMO’s don’t have to be identified on the label I avoid any product that MIGHT have them- my own personal boycott.

    When I did a random search for “real food” one day, an ad for “good” ole Hellmans came up as the first result. Talkin’ ’bout how they were part of the “Real Food Revolution”. So they know we’re out here, and they are getting nervous. But they still think we’re stupid….

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      I hear you! “Made With…” just a little bit of olive oil. Nice try, Hellman’s! 😉 Katie

  4. Jacqueline says

    I’ve been doing this awhile, so I think I know the pitfalls. But I feel really badly for the average consumer trying to do the right thing, and willing to spend a little more money for it too, all the while getting hoodwinked by clever marketing.

  5. Jessica C says

    Oh my. You completely read my mind!!! The whole food industry is so tricky and confusing that I get fed up with it completely. All the foods that seem simple are diluted with industrial additives. Some days, it feels like there is nothing to buy except the actual lemon (and then, if you buy it at a store, you dont really know where it came from)

  6. Tonya via Facebook says

    My pet peeve is seeing these two words on the label: natural flavoring. What exactly is that? Like you said, it’s made from something found in nature, just like everything else in the world!

    • Joyce says

      Natural Flavor is MSG!!! Because it is naturally found in some foods in small amounts; can’t recall which ones offhand. Natural Flavor is found in a huge number of processed food products.

  7. Karen says

    I love this part:

    I feel like this is akin to saying, “Here’s some 100% clean water to drink…although we did get it out of the toilet, and who knows what happened to it while it was in there, but it started out as 100% water and, oh of course, we added a bit of chlorine bleach before we served it to you. Drink up!”

    Thanks for the giggle! I wish it wasn’t so serious!

  8. Julia says

    I’m glad to know I wasn’t the only one tricked by the lemon juice. The worst part is my bottle from Aldo also contains sugar!

  9. Amanda Yoder says

    Thanks for more eye opening reminders to always read ingredients (my most recent anger is even ingredients like garlic powder or garlic salt have added stuff and are all from China!). Although, I’m curious–what about xantham gum? I had no idea it might not be a good thing, as I am recently gluten free and many of my made at home recipes call for it. Can you help with more info on that??

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      Seriously, garlic powder??? Wow.

      re: xanthan gum – super tricky subject. I learned a lot about it here: http://www.eatingrules.com/2011/10/what-are-gums/

      I don’t think it’s inherently evil. I do think too much could be a problem. It’s definitely a processed food, so I try to find GF recipes that don’t call for it at all. I finally bought a bag a few months back, maybe last summer, and didn’t even use it until New Year’s – and we eat GF 95% of the time!

      Some GF folks are already developing sensitivities to gums (gluten free girl is one) and are turning to psyllium husk. I finally bought some of that, too, b/c I was seeing it everywhere, and of course I haven’t seen a recipe in a month including it. :) Murphy’s Law of weird food!

      Here’s our FAV GF bread without any weird ingredients: http://www.nourishingmeals.com/2012/03/gluten-free-flatbread-recipe-made-from.html

      Hope that helps – :) Katie

      • Amanda Y. says

        Thanks Katie–I’ll have to look more into the gums and recipes without it! Yes, garlic and onion powder and actually I’ve been told most fresh garlic is coming from China in most areas (we can still find it in a little box covered in plastic wrap (which irritates me for waste) coming from USA but the rest isn’t marked where its from!)

  10. says

    Ha! A few weeks ago I made a comment on FB about seeing grape tomatoes at the grocery store labeled as “natural.” Yeah – really? I wonder when we got to the place that we started labeling our produce as “natural.” They were NOT organic tomatoes, and likely not natural. Ha!

  11. Linda says

    You and I are on the same wavelength with this topic. I am SO worn out being in the kitchen all the time I think how nice it would be to just go to the grocery store and buy something already to eat instead of one more thing to prepare, but it’s all junk I don’t trust any of it. You even have to check carefully in a health food store. And what about fresh produce? I read sometime last year that everything, even the organics have a coating on them that doesn’t wash off. I am not thrilled about that. They have found a way to adulterate every single food.

  12. Joyce says

    Not to be OT, but is Costco worth shopping at for organic food? I know they have some organic veggies, but what about meat and chicken. I’ve never been to Costco, so was wondering if it is worth a trip to check it out? thanks, Joyce

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      I’m fairly new to Costco, started a membership mostly for the Kerrygold butter. I thought for a while that it might not be worth it, but now I’m totally hooked. I have a post series called “What Does a Real Foodie Buy at…?” for places like Aldi, Costco, bulk ordering online, etc. It won’t be for a while, but there are plenty of good things at Costco – it’s my best source right now for chicken, even though I’d rather have local birds, and things like frozen vegs, dry quinoa, BPA-free canned salmon/tuna, and organic tortilla chips are new staples at our house.

      :) Katie

      • Angie says

        I just got an Aldis flyer showing all their new organic products-what do you think of this? Also, I went to a Farmer’s Market last summer and was told only one stand was actually from someone’s garden. The other stands were people who were buying produce from the grocery store and marking it up! WHAT?? anyone know if that is true or was this man just trying to get me to buy from one stand that maybe he was in kahoots with? How do you know? So frustrating. I just started getting into all of this and had a tiny but sad garden last year due to a serious drought. Another question-what about milk? I have found all the organic milk has been ultra-past. which I heard wasn’t good. Yet regular milk is not ultra-pas. What do you buy? It’s more than twice as much for a 1/2 gallon and with 4 kids, gets pricey but if I’m going to pay that much I want to make sure we are buying a good product. Can’t find raw milk and we live in WI. Thanks so much for any input sorry for all of the questions

        • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

          Navigating real food can be a tangled web sometimes, can’t it?

          Some farmers at the market definitely don’t grow their own – best to talk to the market manager as every market has standards by which vendors must abide. I sure hope your market isn’t as dismal as that guy told you though!

          I haven’t seen the organics at Aldi, but I can only say “awesome!” I shop at Aldi sometimes for sure.

          Here’s a breakdown on different kinds of milk and pros and cons: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2010/06/22/what-kind-of-milk-should-i-buy/

          Good luck! :) Katie

  13. Sonia says

    Question about trans fats.. is the only way to get a trans fat by hydrogenating it?
    I bought Arla organic cream cheese and the ingredients are pretty normal: pasteurized organic milk and cream, salt, bacterial culture, but as you can see in the nutritional information on this link: http://www.arlafoods.ca/products/arla/biologique-cream-cheese/
    It says there are 0.3g of trans fats.. but I dont’ understand why it would have trans fats. Anyone know?

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      Thanks to Cory! I didn’t know that one, and I see on another source that there *are* naturally occurring trans fats in cabbage and a few other random things. Crazy. The fact that the label listed anything under 0.5 g makes me trust this company! :) Katie

  14. Nicole K. says

    I buy Santa Cruz Organic’s lemon juice. I find $4 a bottle fair enough for the time I save getting juice for my green drink in the mornings. I’d love to know what brand and size you’ve found at Costco, as I’ve never seen organic lemon juice or whole lemons @ Costco (in DFW area). Thanks!

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      It’s Italian Volcano…what an awesome name that makes me thing NOT about lemons! 😉 About $7 and change for two big ol’ bottles. :) Katie

  15. Anja says

    so right on. it’s almost getting to the point where i don’t even want to set foot inside the grocery store anymore. but, of course, that’s not an option in my world. yet. 😀

  16. Lindsey says

    I feel pretty confident navigating food labels after years of doing it, but I have friends who are really tricked by the real washing marketing. They tend to only look at the claims on the front of the package. One friend was really upset when she realized that corn syrup was the first ingredient in the granola bars that she thought were a healthy snack for her kids.

    It also cracked me up how a few years ago, WalMart put “No trans fats” labels on everything from frozen fruit to canned vegetables… duh. It goes to show how little people know about what’s in their food.

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      I remember that! Everything said no trans fats – and then more recently we’re reminded that there’s no high fructose corn syrup in our tomatoes or whatever. Sheesh. (Then again, maybe that’s not so silly – there IS HFCS in canned kidney beans.)
      :) Katie

  17. Brittany says

    I love your definition of “real-washing!” :) My husband and I always get a good laugh and eye roll at the shady labeling in the store, but it really isn’t funny. People, occasionally myself included, are snookered by it. The “Gluten Free” label on obvious stuff especially annoys me, mainly because I know people are falling for it. Of course bananas and carrots are gluten free!

    And it’s so true that people have very little idea what’s actually in their food. An intelligent, generally health-conscious relative and I were talking about GMOs and how most corn, soy and sugar is GM. He confidently told me, as he took a bite of his cool whip laden pie, that he doesn’t eat those things. :)

  18. Suzanne says

    Thank you for illuminating the marketing bologny regarding “all natural” foods! I’m with you on all counts. I have been reading labels for 10 years or more now and recently went vegan. As I learn more and more, paying attention to all the stupid hype and marketing, I find less and less that I can eat.

    But I always wonder about the lemon juice, in particular. I go through quite a bit of the stuff.

    Please tell me what is the problem with those added ingredients in the lemon juice. I haven’t heard or read anything about it. Of course, trying to eat whole foods, it’s obvious that we don’t want weird fillers and less is definitely more, but exactly what health problems can the lemon juice additives cause?

    All Natural Me!

    • says

      They’re probably not incredibly heinous, but two are preservatives, so although I don’t know specific health risks of those preservatives, I know they’re not naturally occurring or meant for human consumption, and “lemon oil” is just interesting in that the sourcing of oils can be very important as far as potency, purity, and toxicity. I was mostly mad that they could label the bottle “100% juice” when it clearly wasn’t! If you have access to a Costco, their lemon juice is heavenly. :) Katie

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