Okay, so you see the title of this post…sound familiar? Just like you have been told since you were a child to not judge a book by its cover, the same goes for food. I get irritated every time I see yet another product at the store that has positioned itself to appear to be the “healthier” alternative. Upon looking a little closer, however, you often discover the real truth.
One of Michael Pollan’s food rules is to “avoid food products that make health claims” like “vitamin-fortified”, “contains omega-3s”, “lowers your cholesterol”, and I even saw a juice that claims it helps with your child’s “brain development”. He says to have a health claim it must have a package so “it’s more likely to be a processed rather than a whole food.” This makes perfect sense, and I couldn’t agree more, but I would like to take it a step further. I think we also need to be cautious about the overall look and wording that manufacturers use on some of their packaged products as well.
Below are some good examples that caught my eye. This is just a small list to get you started and to help you remember that you really can’t judge anything by the cover. You must always read the ingredients!
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Judging by the cover…
What’s really inside
The box sports a cardboard look, which appears to be (and may be) earth-friendly. It says the crackers are organic and that the wheat is stoneground, which is typically thought of as the older and more nutritious way to grind wheat (as opposed to steel rollers).
The first ingredient* is organic enriched flour (wheat flour, etc.). White flour is made from the wheat plant, but unless it specifically says “whole-wheat” or even “whole grain” it is basically just an organic version of the same ol’ highly processed white flour that you can find in hundreds of other cracker boxes.
This box of crackers says they are “Multi-Grain” which may sound like a great choice upon first glance. Just using the word “grain” is a sort of buzzword that people might easily get confused with “whole grain”. Multi-grain just means they used a combination of different grains (like wheat, barley, rice, etc), but that word doesn’t tell you whether the grains were highly processed or not. Keep in mind that whether the wheat plant is processed into white flour or whole-wheat flour it will always be considered a “grain”. The package must say “whole grain” or “whole-wheat” to be in the most nutritious form.
I was surprised and impressed to see that the first ingredient* is actually whole-wheat flour. Don’t get too excited though because the second ingredient is enriched flour (the highly processed version) and they also contain both sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.
This is a newly designed Crystal Light package that now says “natural lemonade”.
The ingredients are exactly the same as the lemonade in the old package (that did not say “natural”) which are: Citric Acid, Potassium and Sodium Citrate, Aspartame (Sweetener), Magnesium Oxide, and it even says right there on the back “contains less than 2% of Natural Flavor”.
This granola bar box says they are “harvest berry” flavor and organic. There is also a picture of a luscious green farm. It looks innocent enough, right?
What you don’t see on the cover (or anywhere on the box) is that Cascadian Farms is actually owned by General Mills. Also the first ingredient* listed is Tapioca syrup which is a sweetener similar to corn syrup. It also contains “crisp rice” (which is made with sugar), naturally milled sugar and brown rice syrup (another sweetener). In addition, there are a few ingredients that I have trouble pronouncing.
This appears to be a “natural” version of the Jif peanut butter we have all known (and quite possibly used) for years.
The main difference between this natural version and regular Jif is that it contains palm oil instead of fully hydrogenated vegetable oil. Almost all the other ingredients are exactly the same. And Jif does seem to boast about their natural version having “only 5 simple ingredients” (peanuts, sugar, palm oil, salt and molasses), but guess what? You can buy peanut butter made from only one ingredient and that is crushed peanuts. Now how “natural” does this one sound?
*According to the FDA’s website “Listing ingredients in descending order of predominance by weight means that the ingredient that weighs the most is listed first.”