Five Words Ruined by the Food Industry

Aunt Jemima Syrup

There's not much "Natural" about Aunt Jemima Syrup

When it comes to food labels and marketing, odds are good that true meaning is the opposite of the intended. Next time you see any of these words used on a label or in an advertisement, think of them as a red flag and consider your choice carefully.

1. “Natural”

The term “Natural” is essentially unregulated and therefore meaningless when it comes to food labels. (I’ve written about this before, but it’s become so common that it bears repeating.) I’ve seen “All Natural” claims on products that contain high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, artificial colors, artificial flavors, and all sorts of other additives-made-in-a-lab that I can’t even pronounce — none of which would I consider  even close to what nature actually created.

What’s most frustrating is that even though I know this to be true, I still catch myself falling for it every once in a while.  The word “natural” is so loaded and so powerful, that it’s hard (impossible?) to break out of that mindset.  The best solution? If you ever see the word “natural,” start with the assumption that it’s probably not.

2. “Multigrain”

Recently I asked a waiter at a restaurant if they had 100% whole grain bread (it was the kind of restaurant where that seemed plausible, at least), and he responded proudly, “Yes, it’s multigrain!”

I feel silly that I have to even point this out, but “Multi” simply means “More Than One.”  So multigrain means you’re getting more than one type of grain.  It could be wheat, rye, corn, triticale, whatever — it’s just that there’s at least a teeny-tiny bit of at least two grains in there. It doesn’t say anything about “whole” grain — which is the important part.

Here’s how to choose whole grains.

3. “Artisan”

According to Merriam-Webster, an Artisan is “one that produces something (as cheese or wine) in limited quantities often using traditional methods.”  Recently, Domino’s Pizza started offering “Artisan” pizzas, even going so far as to have the person who assembles all the parts actually sign the box. They even ironically claim “We’re not Artisans!” as part of their marketing campaign (but they somehow still think it’s okay to call them “Artisan Pizzas”). Do you know any truly artisanal food makers who add Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, L-cysteine, and Silicon Dioxide to their pizza crusts?

A better choice: Become your own pizza artisan.

4. “Moderation”

The definition of “moderation” is very different from what the food industry would have you believe.  Purveyors of processed products lure you in with the notion that you can indulge a little each day and be just fine. In theory, that’s true. In practice, however, it rarely works out that way.

The 2005 USDA Guidelines used the term “discretionary calories,” defining them as the extra, nutritionally devoid calories you could safely consume (around 150 to 300 each day [PDF], depending on overall caloric needs), after you’ve already satisfied the rest of your day’s nutritional requirements.  The more recent 2010 “My Plate” guidelines use the term “empty calories.” Same concept, but now with a more accurate name.

So if — and only if — you ate perfectly healthfully all day long (whatever that means), you could then indulge in just three Oreo Cookies or half an order of In-N-Out Fries, or one can of Coke.  In reality, though, most of us (self included) sneak in those empty calories a little at a time, often without even realizing it (ketchup or mayonnaise on a sandwich, a teaspoon of sugar in our coffee, Gatorade after a workout). It’s not just the obvious, added bits, either. That 500-calorie bran muffin?  Sure, 300 of those calories might come from good-for-you ingredients (like whole grains) — but the other 200 might come from discretionary/empty butter and sugar. Those empty calories add up so quickly and easily that there’s actually no room left over for that cookie at the end of the day.

A more accurate reality is that most of us can indulge once a week, not once a day.  Sure, have those Oreos, fries, or Coke.  But do it once a week, not once a day, and when you do indulge, truly make it count.  Don’t believe me? Keep a log of everything you eat for a few days. (Here are some iOS and Android apps to help; scroll down to the end.)

5. “Wholesome”

I’m going to use the Quaker Oats product line as an example here (since PepsiCo is my arch-nemesis); next time you’re at the grocery store I bet you can easily find a ton of similar products.

Right at the top of the Quaker Oats website, it says “Wholesome goodness in delicious new ways.” So let’s talk about that “wholesome goodness” Quaker offers. Sure, their unadulterated, plain oats would fit the definition wholesome (“promoting health of body,” according to Merriam-Webster). But the rest of the product line (which is the vast majority of what they sell)? Not so much.

Consider for a moment their “Quaker Oatmeal To Go” bars. Sure, the first ingredient is oats. The second ingredient is high fructose corn syrup. The third is brown sugar, and a little further down you’ll find plain white sugar. Odds are high that there’s more sugar than oats in the bar. And then there’s the margarine, made from partially hydrogenated oils, which means it’s got trans fats in it, which have no safe intake limit. Oh, and they also throw in preservatives, artificial color, natural flavors (ahem–also meaningless) and artificial flavors. Suddenly, they’re not looking so wholesome after all.

Bonus word: “Goodness”

I hadn’t seen this word all that often when it comes to marketing, but when I went to the Quaker Oats website while researching this post, I couldn’t believe just how often they use the words “good” and “goodness.”  Of course, it makes perfect sense — just as unregulated as any “wholesome,” it connotes something positive without saying anything at all.  I counted these two words no less than six times on just the Quaker homepage alone!

It’s actually a fun exercise — click through and see how much meaningless marketing doublespeak you can find on their site.  If something sounds really good to you, be sure to read the ingredients. You’ll probably change your mind.

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18 Comments on "Five Words Ruined by the Food Industry"

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Gisele aka LA2LAChef
February 27, 2012 9:32 am

I heartily agree with you on this, Andrew. Unfortunately, it’s not solely food that suffers from “meaningless marketing doublespeak’ in our society. It’s everywhere, from the most vital of issues facing us, to the least.

February 27, 2012 10:08 am

I also heartily agree wit you, Andrew. The one that takes the cake for me is “natural”. When I see meat advertised as natural, I have no idea what that means. AHHHHH! I am becoming more and more leery about trusting anything that packages have on them. Including the sneaky ways ingredients are listed.

February 27, 2012 10:56 am

I love the way you think – thanks for brightening up my Monday morning after a frustrating trip to the grocery store where I started screaming at loaves of “whole grain” bread. Got a few alarmed looks from fellow shoppers…

Mary Platis
February 27, 2012 10:57 am

It all comes down to Trust. Seek out small local grocery stores that do the homework for you and you can trust,and a perfect example is Jimbo’s in San Diego.(I have no affiliation)Once you have visited this store with it’s Non-GMO policy,organic,and local produce you will demand more stores with this model in your community. Take some time and browse their site online, and drop by one sometime to take a peek, it’s worth the visit.

February 27, 2012 12:06 pm

I’d add “organic” as organic junk food is still junk food. I hear a lot of people using it when they get puzzled or frustrated.

Dan @ Casual Kitchen
February 27, 2012 12:28 pm

Good post Andrew. For me, the only rule with front-of-package labels is caveat emptor. Yet more reasons to make your food at home, so you know what’s going into them.

PS: I have no clue what sodium hexametaphospate is, but it sure sounds appetizing, doesn’t it? *Shudder*

February 27, 2012 12:55 pm

And to add my own pet-peeve: the wide-spread belief that when bread is labeled as “wheat” it’s whole wheat. Of course, that’s ridiculous. It’s just not rye or corn or whatever else.

February 27, 2012 1:25 pm

This is so true. I get really frustrated at how food is marketed so even a moderately knowledgeable person can get confused. Was in the grocery store last weekend for chicken broth and picked up some Organic Free Range chicken broth. Sounds good right?

Forgot to check the label. Stupid mistake – right there was listed ‘autolyzed yeast extract’ which is just a fancy way of saying MSG.

FAIL – always read labels. Organic doesn’t mean healthy!

Marcia @Frugal Healthy Simple
February 27, 2012 1:41 pm

I’m a chemical engineer, and I had to look it up. When did eating become so complicated?

I had a friend get chided at the store when he bought maple syrup. The older lady in front of him told him how much more he could get if he bought Aunt Jemima.

I like butter. don’t be dissing my butter!

February 27, 2012 1:46 pm

I try hard to stick to the 5 ingredient rule if I buy packaged. And Never use any product with hfcs. The main stream food industry is killing us slowly. We can protect ourselves by cooking whole foods, become educated and try to consistently be available to spread the word.

February 27, 2012 1:56 pm

PREACH it, Andrew!

February 27, 2012 2:09 pm

Love this post. So many people just don’t realize this! I catch my parents all the time picking up things like highly processed sausage with preservatives, corn syrup, etc. added…or crackers…my Dad says “It’s natural”! pointing to the sign on the box. Sheesh.
I shared it on my page as well, hope you don’t mind! Love your site!

February 27, 2012 3:15 pm

Thank you for this lovely post! It’s amazing how often people use and misuse these terms. I could add a few more!

February 27, 2012 7:00 pm

Bravo, I am so tired of reading “natural or wholesome” on products like white bread! Maybe if we all read the labels more carefully we will shop better and make an impact on the producers!

Carol Milstein
Carol Milstein
March 4, 2012 8:23 am

Thanks for this post. It’s really scary to realize how many products are marketed as “natural”, “low fat”, etc. that are anything but. Only solution is to read labels! And my husband wonders why I spend so much time at the grocery store!!!