Lies My Grocer Told Me.

takahe83 takes on the embellishment of the healthfulness of certain foods.

I am always amused by the health claims on food; take, for example, the frequent “low carb!” claims on vinagrettes (of course they’re low carb – salad dressings are almost all fat) or even the “low fat!” claim on your packet of marshmallows.

Perhaps not so egregious but still amusing are some of the health claims on the “Naked Juices” that I often purchase with my fake student money on campus. …

Take my personal favorite, the “Green Machine” drink. Alongside the nearly 3 apples and fractions of kiwi and mango you have a list of added “boosts” like spinach and broccoli. Just how much spinach, do you ask? An entire 100 mg. Now, when I take a leaf sample in the lab, I’m instructed to take no more than a 50 mg leaf sample, and the general rule for eyeballing that amount is to take a slice of leaf no larger than the area of your thumbnail – that’s 50 mg. So adding 100 mg of spinach to your 16 oz drink is like adding two thumbnail’s worth of spinach to your smoothie – that’s not even one entire leaf of spinach by my reckoning.

This touches on a point several people made in Jamelle’s post on junk food taxes; part of the problem with assessing those taxes would just be defining what constitutes junk food. For all its alleged healthfulness, Naked’s Green Machine actually has more calories and more sugar than a regular Coke.

Other commenters advocated for better nutritional education for consumers, but getting people to make better food choices is made all the more difficult because foodmakers embellish their healthiness or, just as often, obfuscate how unhealthy they actually are.* Consumers conflate labels like “all natural,” “organic,” or “free range” with some sort of extra nutritional value in their food. But putting really, really fresh food on store shelves — pesticide-free, locally grown/raised, in-season — just wouldn’t work for Whole Foods; it would be too hard to give customers what they wanted when they wanted them (like mangoes in the middle of December) and in the amounts they wanted them. The government’s criteria for labeling a product “organic” or “free range” was created with a lot of input from agribusiness giants like ConAgra and retailers like Whole Foods, and what actually constitutes either of those things is markedly different than what consumers think they mean. So a food additive can be called “all natural” because of the way it’s made and not because the end-product is different from the same additive made “artificially;” a chicken can be called “free-range” if the coop it was raised in had a door that was open for a small time each day and allowed more sunlight in. (A lot of brands whose ethos is all-natural are actually just subsidiaries of big multinationals.)

Food companies are essentially making these semantic distinctions for a subset of middle class consumers who want to feel a particular way about their food purchases: environmentally responsible, epicurean, healthy.

I also want to toss this out there. I’m not sure what to make of it.

In one study, college students were given one of two menus. One menu featured French fries, chicken nuggets and a baked potato; the other included those same items as well as a salad. The French fries, widely perceived as the least healthful option, were three times as popular with students selecting from the menu that had the salad as they were with the other group.

“When you consider the healthy option, you say, well, I could have that option,” said Keith Wilcox, a doctoral candidate at Baruch College who is one of the paper’s four authors. “That lowers your guard, leading to self-indulgent behavior.”

The diners most affected by the presence of a healthful item were those with the highest levels of self-control, as measured by a widely used test. Those with less self-control were far likelier to order the fries in the no-salad condition; but when the salad was included, some of them opted for it.

*Like calling sugar “evaporated cane juice.”



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • part of the problem with assessing those taxes would just be defining what constitutes junk food.

    This is a good point, and one that I didn’t clarify in my comments on Jamelle’s post. I tend to think that anything that’s processed/prepared is essentially junk food, whether that’s breakfast granola bars, or Tropicana OJ, or stove-top stuffing. I take that position because there’s so much filler in these items — when there are 30 ingredients in a product that has ‘natural’ on the label, I get suspicious.

    The easy solution, in my opinion, is to become an ingredients reader. I flip a package over without even thinking about it now (this goes for beauty products, as well) and I know the ingredients that immediately make me put an item back on the shelf (high fructose corn syrup isn’t the only one).

    That’s not to say I don’t eat English muffins or whatever peanut butter is on sale, but I think we’d be better off being more aware that if our food comes in a box, a can, or a bag (and it isn’t meat or like, dried beans) it probably isn’t as healthful as the packaging would have us believe. I think I’d actually support taxing processed and prepared foods, not just chips and soda, while leaving whole grains, meat, produce and fish alone.

  • ladyfresshh

    At this point unless you are chucking it all and going to grow your own food (and even then you will be affected by macro environments and what to use for seeds) it feels like nitpicking.

    While I definitely agree that foodmakers have muddied the argument but frankly the argument is no longer simple. Even natural foods are no longer natural with hybridization of seeds it’s possible you can no longer grow a natural variety of many of our current foods without pesticides because they are not longer in a natural ecosystem.

    A person can barely even drink natural water, this is the state of our world at this point.

    I’d argue we want to be lied to like you said:
    “Food companies are essentially making these semantic distinctions for a subset of middle class consumers who want to feel a particular way about their food purchases: environmentally responsible, epicurean, healthy.

    We don’t necessarily want to do anything about it, it’s the rare person who is that consumed or is even that romantic/nostalgic about farming. Most of us would still would rather buy it than grow it.

    i dunno all of this this seems extreme and while those extreme parties have created a bit of change in the food system (yay for chickens with cage the door open) i’m still not killing a chicken myself.

    bah i’ve lost my train of thought and i think i’ve jumbled things again
    GD will correct me i’m sure

  • Steve

    Naked Juice tastes damn good though.

  • Keith is a friend of mine! Love that you’re excerpting his research here! (And jealous!) :)

  • Mandy

    Your comparison of naked green machine to coke is off. Yes naked has more calories per oz, coke is loaded with more sugars. Green machine is not claiming it is a low calorie food. It’s stayed right on the lake under the ingredients.