Food follies: the variety show that never runs out of misleading material

Posted by
June 19, 2012

For its 25th anniversary issue, Cooking Light magazine took a look back at 25 years of what the editors dubbed  the “weird, wacky and occasionally alarming trends that have bubbled up in the stew pot of the collective food consciousness,” and presented its picks for “25 years of food follies.”

Some of the “follies” relate to the every-increasing portion sizes that have become all too familiar on the food landscape by now — for example, Oscar Mayer’s introduction in 1987 of its longer frankfurter, bigger by 40 percent with 30 percent more calories. Others spotlight some of the creepy additives that food companies actually thought they could convince consumers to swallow, such as the fat substitute Olestra.

Now Olestra, also known as Olean,  might have made a bigger splash in the processed-food world if not for an FDA-mandated warning label that included the term “loose stools” – what may have been the first such advisory on a bag of chips.  Its selling point, a  no-calorie fat substitute that goes right through the system, also gave lots of material to comedians and late-night talk-show hosts who popularized the term “anal leakage.” (But it’s still apparently in the marketplace, according to the Olean website, in some Pringles and Frito-Lay brands, as well as being used as a paint lubricant and additive.)

For its 2010 “folly” the magazine picked the Corn Refiners Association petition to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to “corn sugar,” a move which was just rejected last month by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. A 2009 study, according to the magazine, showed that 58 percent of Americans worry that HFCS “poses a special health hazard,” leading Big Corn on a quest to “sweeten its name.”

Although the FDA didn’t let “corn sugar” fly, there are still other examples, from the ridiculous to the downright dastardly to choose from.

Food Identity Theft presents five of our own favorite food follies

In addition to the “corn sugar” fiasco, our own picks in this category are what we here at FIT consider to be more timeless examples of what food manufactures believe they can get away with.

1. Birthday parties for food products
For those of you who may not have realized it, a food product is not a living thing, nor does it have parents, siblings or friends that can be invited to celebrate its “birthday.”  As food industry insider and blogger Bruce Bradley puts it, “products are lifeless, inanimate brands,” and the concept of giving them a big birthday bash has one reason only:“Big Food’s thirst for fat profits.”

As an example of such marketing tactics, Bradley examines the Oreo cookie’s 100th “birthday” bash, which is scheduled for the entire year of 2012. The “party” includes giant supermarket displays, limited edition varieties, marketing events, special recipes, and heavy-hitting social media. Such strategies, as Bradley point out, conform to the goal of making consumers “adore brands,” and “social media is a perfect place to make this happen.”

2. “Healthy” soda
Sodas touting quasi-health claims are trying hard to make you believe that drinking them will offer some kind of health benefit. It won’t. Soda is not a product that offers anything resembling nutrition, no matter what the label says. Canada Dry started testing the waters with its green tea ginger ale, saying it is “enhanced with 200 mg of antioxidants from green tea & vitamin C,” even while the second ingredient (after carbonated water) is high fructose corn syrup.

If you must drink soda, don’t do so with the rationale that it’s actually good for you. If you want green tea, brew some or get a ready-made version with good ingredients – and no HFCS.

3. A cookie that is marketed to be as good for you as veggies
WhoNu? cookies, a brand I’ve written about previously, makes it to our food follies list by touting the most absurd product claims ever. With pictures of oatmeal, milk and blueberries on the package front, WhoNu? implies that eating your vegetables or drinking milk is optional when you consume this amazing brand. Even worse than the product itself are the devoted fans who claim that this highly refined quasi-food item, which also contains artificial flavors, is somehow “a cookie to love” and “incredible.” Really, folks, who knew people could be so easy to fool?

4. Fruitless fruit products
Products that contain none of what’s in their name account for perhaps the most common form of  food fraud. If we had a nickle for every fruit-flavored product on the market that contained no actual fruit but only “natural flavors” (whatever that means) it would be like hitting a nickle jackpot, The most common fruits that are depicted on labels but can’t be found in the products themselves seem to be blueberries, strawberries and cherries. (Every once in a while a court action is filed on behalf of consumers who have been fooled into buying such items – for example, the recent Center for Science in the Public Interest vs. General Mills’ Fruit Roll-Ups lawsuit in California over the claim that the product is “made with real fruit,” but in fact only contains “natural” flavors and pear juice concentrate.)

5. The marketing scam called “clean labeling”
One of the sneaker tactics used in food marketing is the “clean label” – a term used by the food industry to denote a food label that does not actually list ingredients consumers don’t want. A perfect example is the terminology used to conceal the presence of monosodium glutamate by listing other forms of free glutamic acid such as “yeast extract” or “hydrolyzed protein” in an attempt to fool consumers who are looking to avoid foods containing MSG.

If you’d rather not be a party to the food industry’s follies, try shopping for more “real” food. The more processed food items you buy, the more likely you are to become an unwitting stooge for some company’s clever marketing ploy.

What are your favorite “food follies” picks? Tell us on our Facebook page!