1. We showed people two chocolate bars, but one had a green [nutrition] label, and the other, a red one. People were much more likely to say the green-labelled product was healthier.
Jonathon Schuldt, director of Cornell’s Social Cognition and Communication Lab
2. When you see a buy-one-get-one deal or other promotion at your local grocery store, food companies are often the ones giving you that, not the store. Stores can require us to run sales a certain number of times per year.
Jason Burke, founder of a grass-fed beef company
3. The term “multigrain” usually means a product is not a healthy choice. People confuse it with “wholegrain”, but all it means is that several kinds of grain were used. The first ingredient should be wholegrain.
Katherine Tallmadge, nutritionist and the author of Diet Simple
4. People are nervous about synthetic flavours. But as more nations develop Western tastes for food, we may not have enough natural sources. Take vanilla, which comes from the seeds of an orchid. If everyone in India wanted a vanilla milkshake at the same time, there wouldn’t be enough. But we have discovered a way of making vanillin from algae. It tastes, smells, and acts like regular vanilla, and your body cannot tell the difference.
Kantha Shelke, food scientist
5. People think crackers are healthy, but in many ways, they’re as bad for you as chips. Your typical cracker is made with refined grains and flavouring built around fat, salt and sugar. Then preservatives are often added so the crackers can sit on the shelf for a year. Also, wholegrain crackers are rare. Ninety-nine per cent of crackers out there are a treat.
Bruce Bradley, author of Fat Profits
6. The red colour in many foods comes from crushed insects. If you see carmine or cochineal extract in an ingredients list, the product contains a little powdered bug. But aside from being an allergen for a small number of people, it’s considered safe.
Daniel Tapper, author of Food Unwrapped: Lifting the Lid on How Our Food Is Really Produced
7. Some producers hide sugar by giving it different names such as high-fructose corn syrup, cane crystals, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, agave nectar and fruit juice concentrate. If a product has a lot of sugar, some companies will intentionally use two or more different types so sugar doesn’t end up being number one on the ingredients list.
Dr Walter Willett, Harvard School of Public Health
8. Studies have shown that trace amounts of pesticides are routinely present in foods. Other ingredients come from the packaging. When food is in a box, tiny bits of cardboard and the chemicals used to produce the cardboard get into the food. The same with plastic. BPA – an industrial chemical that has been linked to health problems – is the biggest example.
Michael Jacobson, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington D.C.
9. Many high fibre products are stuffed with fake fibre. It’s not as healthy as the naturally occurring fibre in wholegrains and vegetables. It may even cause gas, bloating, and other stomach problems. Watch out for chicory root, maltodextrin and polydextrose on the ingredients list.
Robert J. Davis, author of Coffee Is Good for You
10. Baked, popped or low-fat chips may seem healthier. But often, they’re just baked conglomerations of highly refined potato flakes, refined grains, and different kinds of powders. You may be better off eating potato chips, made with real potatoes fried in a healthful oil.
11. Artificial sweeteners were originally found useful for people who had diabetes. They were supposed to be an occasional ingredient. Today, people think because they have no kilojoules, they can consume as much of them as they want.
12. When the label on meat says no nitrates or nitrites added, that’s incorrect. Most of those products take celery powder, which is very high in natural nitrates, and convert it into a chemical that, in the lab, is no different from the traditional version.
Joseph Sebranek, professor of food science at Iowa State University
13. Everyone knows all about the health benefits of tea, but bottled tea can have very few benefits. Tea needs to be freshly brewed.
14. The newest concern is over nanoparticles, which are so small, they can penetrate our cell walls. While some types of nanoparticles may increase the shelf life of packaged food, not much is known about how they affect our bodies. And because they’re not required to be listed on food labels, we don’t know how many manufacturers are using them.
15. We did a study in 2012 in which we looked at feather meal, a by-product of poultry production, to see what drugs the chickens may have received before slaughter. A number of samples had residues of antibiotics that are banned from use in poultry. Many also contained caffeine, paracetamol [an OTC pain reliever], and diphenhydramine [an antihistamine active ingredient]. Samples from China had fluoxetine, the same active ingredient as the antidepressant Prozac. From a human health perspective, our findings weren’t necessarily worrisome (since we don’t eat feathers, and it’s unclear whether it affects the meat), but they were certainly surprising.
Dr Keeve Nachman, scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
16. Your extra-virgin olive oil may actually be a lower-grade oil. In our research, approximately 70% of bottles pulled off supermarket shelves did not meet the criteria for the extra-virgin grade. To find a good oil, look for a dark glass or tin container, which protects the oil from light, and a harvest date, which better producers often include on the bottle.
Dan Flynn, olive oil expert, Davis Olive Center, University of California
17. In order for a product to legally be considered ice-cream, it must contain at least 10% milk fat and 168g/L of food solids. If there’s less than that, you can’t call it ice-cream. If you look closely in the supermarket, you’ll see a lot of products are labelled frozen dairy dessert.
Jordan Pierson, marketing officer in the dessert industry
18. Some manufacturers will use add-ins instead of straining [Greek] yoghurt to make it thick. If you see whey protein concentrate or milk protein concentrate on the ingredients list, the company is taking shortcuts.
Melanie Warner, author of Pandora’s Lunchbox
19. Companies hire tasting panels to find what’s known as a product’s bliss point, the perfect amount of sugar that creates the maximum amount of appeal. For instance, to create Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper in the US, a Cadbury Schweppes consultant prepared 61 distinct formulas and subjected them to 3904 tastings.
Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
20. Salt is a miracle ingredient to food manufacturers. It acts as a preservative, saves money by substituting for more expensive herbs and spices, brings out sweetness, and masks the bad flavours inherent to many processed foods.
21. The majority of processed foods start in the factory with huge vats of processed flours, sugars, and oils. They’re dumped into systems that mix them and add salts, flavourings, and colourings to recreate the look and feel of something you might make at home. Then we sprinkle in some “fairy dust”. Maybe it’s something to make it feel more handcrafted, like sun-dried tomatoes. Or it may be vitamins, antioxidants or extra fibre so we can say it’s good for you.
22. You can’t get people to buy something just by telling them it’s good for them. You have to appeal to their senses and emotions. Kids are 65% more likely to grab an apple if it has a Sesame Street character on it, so now we’ve got Sesame Street on all types of fruits and vegetables.
Suzanne Ginestro, marketing officer in the food industry (Red Bull, Nestlé and Kraft)
23. The louder a potato chip crunches, the more people like it and the more they will eat. Most people like a chip that snaps with almost 2 kilograms of pressure per 2.5 square centimetres. When Frito-Lay used a US$40,000 device that simulates a chewing mouth to test and perfect the chips, they discovered the optimal break point.
24. A lot of the foods we eat have interesting origins. For example, the bacteria responsible for sourdough bread originally came from rodent faeces. Any sourdough you eat has that history, yet it’s all perfectly safe and delicious.
Dr Rob Dunn, biologist and author of The Man Who Touched His Own Heart
25. When you develop new food products, your goal is to find headaches in the marketplace that are intense, deeply felt and widely shared, at least among a particular niche.
Bob Drane, creator of Lunchables
26. Getting your products into stores is incredibly difficult. We were in business for eight months before we persuaded the first retailer to carry our product. Some chains ask you to pay thousands of dollars up front or donate the equivalent in product before they’ll take your product.
Officer at a small food company
27. If you’re prone to diabetes, you can still eat pasta. Wholewheat pasta often has more starch than regular because of the way it’s ground. Look for a pasta with a low glycaemic index, which some brands put on the box.
28. In a given year, up to 89% of new items fail. That’s why most new products that big food companies put out now are simple line extensions. Coming up with a new flavour of chips is much easier than investing, say, $20 million developing, creating, and introducing a great new mega-product. Then they look for smaller companies breaking ground with new products and buy them.
Hank Cardello, author of Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat
29. Cereal is nowhere near as wholesome as companies want you to believe. The manufacturing process destroys a lot of the natural nutrition, even if the product contains whole grains. That’s why virtually every cereal has a list of added vitamins and minerals. In my family, we don’t eat cereal often, and we look for ones that have less than eight grams of sugar per serve.
30. When we recently examined big food companies over a five-year period, we found that 99% of their growth was coming from lower-kilojoule products. That was a stunning surprise. So they are moving in the right direction.
31. The concept of the dose makes the poison is very important in the realm of food, especially when it comes to natural flavours and artificial colours. All food ingredients and nutrients – even those we need to survive – have a threshold for safety. When caramel colour was approved, nobody anticipated how much of it would be used in the food and beverage industry. It’s in a lot of foods you don’t expect: certain soups, [instant noodles] and burgers, for example. So if everything you eat is from a box, a can, or a bag, then you may get too much and have reason for concern. But if you eat a variety of foods, you don’t have to worry.
32. Organic foods are the new kids on the block, so producers are fighting aggressively for market share. One way they can increase sales is by convincing you that all chemicals are bad, GMOs are bad, pesticides are bad – and some of that has no basis in science or fact.
Bruce Chassy, Professor Emeritus of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois
33. Consumers clearly want more natural ingredients and transparency about what they’re eating, and smart manufacturers are getting that and responding. Nestlé has moved to get rid of artificial colours and flavours in its chocolate bars. And some fast-food chains are removing antibiotics from their chicken.
34. Some people will say that if you’re not familiar with an ingredient – if you can’t pronounce it – then you shouldn’t eat it. I think that reflects an ignorance of chemistry and nutrition. Take riboflavin, cobalamin and pyridoxamine. They’re big words and sound like things you don’t want in your food, but they are actually all forms of vitamin B, and skipping them can be detrimental to your health. Instead of being scared of ingredients you don’t know, educate yourself.
35. It drives me crazy when people think all food marketers are just trying to pull one over on them. For every brand I’ve worked on, consumer research has been the cornerstone of everything. New products always start with solving a problem for consumers. It doesn’t start with solving our business need and then shoving it down consumers’ throats.
We showed people two chocolate bars, but one had a green [nutrition] label, and the other, a red one. People were much more likely to say the green-labelled product was healthier. – Jonathon Schuldt, director of Cornell’s Social Cognition and Communication Lab