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.

A photo of Andrew Wilder leaning into the frame and smiling, hovering over mixing bowls in the kitchen.

Welcome to Eating Rules!

Hi! My name is Andrew Wilder, and I think healthy eating doesn’t have to suck. With just three simple eating rules, we'll kickstart your journey into the delicious and vibrant world of unprocessed food.

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April 2, 2012 11:03 am

As a pharmacist, I have given talks to groups about “natural” products. I start by asking the group “what do you think when you hear the word natural?”. Inevitably the thoughts are “safe”, “wholesome”, etc. “Uh, huh,” I say, “so, heroin is a naturally derived drug. Do you still think the term “natural” means safe”?
Same with food products.

March 6, 2012 12:55 pm

Add pictures of production methods from the 19th century to that. I hate to break it to anyone, but it’s not that friendly grandma preparing the cake mixture 😉

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!!!

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!

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 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 1:56 pm

PREACH it, Andrew!