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.
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.
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:
No Trans Fat
No Artificial Ingredients
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:
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!
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?
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:
It is so hard to avoid trans fats in the grocery store, but 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?
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:
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.
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
- Modified food starch
- Lauryl glucoside
- Aspartame (an artificial sweetener I abhor!)
- Malic acid
- 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!
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.