12 Food-Industry Tricks That Undermine Clean Eating
Are you supermarket smart?
The process of getting that apple on your plate sounds simple enough: farmer picks apple, apple gets loaded on a truck and shipped off to the grocery store where it lands in your cart. Well, not quite. In fact, your food goes through a lot to make it to you, from being treated with antibiotics to getting a chlorine bath and a wax coating. Many of these steps are no big deal (and we want to silence any fears you may have about them), but some are bad for your health and others huge money wasters. Here are a dozen things that are happening to your healthy food before you take a bite.
Produce gets a wax coating
To prevent bruising, mold growth, and dehydration in storage, some fruit and veggies (apples, cucumbers) are coated with a drop or two of food-grade wax. Your body doesn't digest them, and there's no reason to avoid eating them, says Luke LaBorde, PhD, associate professor of food science at Penn State University. If you want to avoid waxed foods anyway, the FDA doesn't require them to be labeled as such, so look for signs that say they've been coated (a suspicious shine is your first clue). To do so, don't peel your produce—much of the fiber and phytonutrients are located in or just underneath the skin, says Joan Salge Blake, RD, nutrition professor at Boston University and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Instead, wash with a bit of soap and water.
Salmon is made pinker
The salmon you see at the fish counter almost always sports a bright pinkish-orange hue, but in fact, salmon is naturally a greyer shade. The swimmers take on their classic coloring in one of two ways: wild-caught salmon eat krill, while farm-raised salmon are fed pigment pellets. But don't let that stop you from buying farmed fish. Though wild-caught salmon is technically better for you than farmed—it naturally contains half the fat, and is slightly higher in zinc, iron, and potassium—it's three to four times pricier. "Whether farm-raised or wild, there are so many benefits of eating salmon, namely its rich source of omega 3 fatty acids that we don't get enough of," says Blake. Buy whatever is on sale and aim for two servings of fatty fish a week.
Some oranges are dyed
Believe it or not, the dye Citrus Red No. 2 is sprayed on some Florida oranges early in the season to brighten their coloring. These oranges are usually used for juicing, but some end up on grocery store shelves. The dye is FDA-approved and used in small concentrations, but the Center for Science in the Public Interest warns this dye is related to health risks, including cancer, in lab animals. (It's not allowed to be used on California oranges.) Bags of these oranges need to include a label that says color has been added. The dye still isn't meant for eating, so don't make candied orange peel or zest them for cooking.
Actually, tons of foods are dyed
Many foods are dyed to appear healthier or more appetizing. Caramel color, for example, is often added to wheat or pumpernickel breads to make them look like they contain more wheat than they do. The same colorant is used in some roast beef deli meats for a beefier look. Meanwhile, yellow dyes are added to pickles so the spears appear more vibrant. They dyes are usually safe to consume, but when you spot them on an ingredients label, take it as a sign that the food may also harbor other ingredients commonly found in highly processed foods, like added sodium and sugar, says New York City registered dietitian Marjorie Nolan Cohn, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Olive oil may be mixed with a cheaper variety
Extra virgin olive oil has come under fire for not actually being olive oil. Many bottles are mixed with cheaper oils like soybean or canola, according to Consumer Reports, and shipped to the United States where you pay a premium price. In addition to wasting your money, you're also losing out on the heart-health perks of the monounsaturated fats you'd find in pure olive oil, says Cohn.
Chicken is given a bath
The journey a chicken takes from the farm to your kitchen table is not pretty. After slaughter, warm chickens need to be cooled down, so they're placed in a big tank of cold water and a sanitizer, like chlorine, to control harmful bacteria and contamination, explains Don Schaffner, PhD, of the department of food science at Rutgers University. The FDA and USDA say this process is safe, Schaffner says, but you can avoid chickens that have been treated this way by choosing air-chilled poultry.
One not-so-healthy thing some manufacturers do to your chicken: inject saltwater into raw meat to enhance its flavor. Considering most Americans consume far more sodium than they should, you'll want to read nutrition labels carefully—unaltered chicken contains 40 to 70 milligrams of sodium per 4-ounce serving, while injected chickens pack in 300 milligrams or more.
Fish gets labeled, often incorrectly
From 2010 to 2012, the ocean conservation organization Oceana collected 1,200 seafood samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states to determine if they were labeled correctly. Turns out one in three samples were mislabeled per FDA guidelines. The most-commonly mislabeled fish was red snapper (87%), which was frequently substituted with much-cheaper tilapia. This isn't just a rip-off—it can also be a health issue, especially if you have to limit high-mercury fish. (For example, if you're pregnant.) Ask questions to ensure you're getting good quality fish, says Blake. Quiz the fishmonger at your supermarket or your restaurant waiter on the origins of their seafood.
Honey has the pollen removed
Research from Texas A&M University found that 75% of honey we buy contains no pollen. Pollen isn't needed to make honey—it accidentally winds up there when it gets attached to bees' bodies—and is filtered during processing to make honey look clear and delay crystallization. Whether you buy honey with pollen (called "raw" honey) or without it is your choice; according to the National Honey Board, the nutrient and antioxidant content is the same.
Meat gets checked for antibiotics and hormones
You might be swayed to buy meat that's labeled "antibiotic free," but the truth is, "technically, all meat must be free of all traces of antibiotics before it's sold," says Cohn. Translation: "antibiotic free" is mostly a marketing ploy, and doesn't guarantee that the meat wasn't raised without antibiotics. Similarly, you might see the label on chicken or pork that says "hormone free." Again, it's a marketing tactic given hormones are not allowed to be used on these two animals anyway. Look for terms like "raised without antibiotics" and "raised without added hormones."
Organic produce sometimes gets sprayed
"Organic" doesn't always mean pesticide-free. Pears, berries, apples, and some veggies may be doused with a naturally occurring mineral clay powder to ward off insects, which may leave a powdery residue behind. Similarly, since 2002, the National Organic Standards Board has allowed the antibiotics Tetracycline and Streptomycin to be used in the production of organic apples and pears to fight a bacterial disease called "fire blight." This serves as a good reminder to wash all your produce, organic or not. Rinse under running water to remove any residue, dirt, and bacteria, and use a scrub brush on produce with harder skins.
Almonds are pasteurized
Along with milk, bottled juice, and canned goods, almonds are pasteurized in order to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks, and can be achieved by roasting, blanching, steam treating, or spraying with a Propylene Oxide Treatment (PPO). You should know that PPO is considered safe by the EPA, but is also sometimes added to engine oil or used to make mattress foam—something you probably didn't bargain for when you sat down for a nutty snack. If you want to avoid PPO, look for brands that say they've been "steam pasteurized" or dry roasted.
Fruit is ripened artificially
Here's why you still have apples in June and peaches in March: the fruit is picked, sold, and the excess stored in big cold storage rooms. Then, carbon dioxide may be added to replace oxygen and stop the ripening process. "CO2 puts the fruit to sleep," says LaBorde. When they're ready for the grocery store, the gas will be removed and oxygen reintroduced. A similar process is done with bananas. They all are harvested green (they ship better that way) then stored in tanks where they're given a dose of ethylene gas to prompt the banana to turn yellow. Don't worry: bananas and other fruit naturally produce ethylene to enhance ripening. Eat away!