Grocery stores are teeming with real-food impostors: products so full of artificial flavorings, colors, and other additives that they start to look more like science projects than snacks. (And, yes, for record, we CAN believe it’s not butter). Here are seven “foods” you should leave on the shelf.
1. Cream that isn’t cream
“Cream” that doesn’t have to be refrigerated? Yeah right. The only thing even partially resembling dairy in most shelf-stable coffee creamers is something called sodium caseinate, a “milk derivative.” The rest of the ingredient list is usually comprised of a nutritionally empty blend of oil, sugar, and natural and artificial flavors—definitely not the best way to start your day.
Ingredients: Water, sugar, hydrogenated coconut oil, less than 2% of: sodium caseinate, dipotassium phosphate, mono- and diglycerides, salt, natural and artificial flavor.
2. Potato chips that aren’t potato chips
There’s a reason those tubes of stackable, crispy ovals are labeled “potato crisps” instead of “potato chips:” Some contain as little as 40% potato content—and even that comes in the form of dried potato flakes. Instead, these crisps are cut with rice flour and other starches to make up the potato-y difference. Seems kind of backwards when plenty of other chip companies are making addictively crunchy snacks by—get this—actually slicing real potatoes.
Ingredients: Dried potatoes, vegetable oil (contains one or more of the following: corn oil, cottonseed oil, soybean oil, and/or sunflower oil), rice flour, wheat starch, maltodextrin, mono- and diglycerides, salt, dextrose.
3. Cheese that’s not cheese
Pick up one of those flimsy individually wrapped slices, and you’ll uncover the mystery that is a “processed cheese product.” True, “cheese” is usually listed as the first ingredient, but it’s all the other stuff after it that gives us pause. Some brands have a total of 15 ingredients, including preservatives and emulsifiers to alter texture. Real cheese delivers the same melty deliciousness with only four.
Ingredients: Cheddar cheese (milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes), whey, milk, milk protein concentrate, milkfat, whey protein concentrate, sodium citrate, contains less than 2% calcium phosphate, salt, lactic acid, annatto and paprika extract (color), natamycin (a natural mold inhibitor), enzymes, cheese culture, vitamin D3.
4. Wasabi that’s not wasabi
Last year, the Washington Post reported that 99% of all “wasabi” served in the U.S. is just horseradish with some food dyes added. That’s because real wasabi is much more expensive, and if you want the real thing, restaurants would have to shell out lots more dough—we’re talking $70 for ½ pound. Next time you’re forking over hard cash for sushi, it might be worth asking if you’re also getting the real wasabi.
Ingredients: Horseradish, sorbitol, rice bran oil, sugar, modified food starch, salt, water, cellulose, wasabi, artificial flavor, citric acid, turmeric, xanthan gum, artificial color.
5. Crab that’s not crab
We have to hand it to imitation crab—at least the label actually says it’s not the real thing. So what is it really? Most brands are made of ground-up white fish like pollock, plus a laundry list of flavoring and texturizing additives, sugars, and food dye (that pink color has to come from somewhere!). Some brands use wild and sustainably harvested fish—but then, why not just buy the fish whole and skip the “crab” masquerade?
Ingredients: Alaska Pollock, water, egg whites, cornstarch, sugar, sorbitol, contains 2% or less of king crab meat, natural and artificial flavor (extracts of blue crab, snow crab, lobster, and Alaska Pollock), refined fish oil (anchovy, sardine), rice wine (water, rice, koji), modified tapioca starch, sea salt, carrageenan, yam flour, potassium chloride, disodium inosinate, sodium pyrophosphate, soy lechithin, carmine, paprika, color added.
6. Vanilla that’s not vanilla
Imitation vanilla extract gets most of its vanilla flavor from vanillin, a synthetic flavoring agent. That’s not so bad on its own, but manufacturers don’t stop there. Most imitation vanillas also contain potentially dangerous caramel color and mysterious natural flavors, which could be almost anything
Ingredients: Water, alcohol, natural flavorings, vanillin and other artificial flavorings, corn syrup, and caramel color.
7. Gum that’s not gum
Sad news for habitual gum chompers: most major brands are made from “gum base,” a proprietary blend of synthetic rubbers and plastics, not the natural gums harvested from tropical trees. Plus, they’re rife with artificial sweeteners.
Ingredients: Sorbitol, gum base, xylitol, glycerol, natural and artificial flavors, less than 2% of soy lecithin, hydrogenated starch hydrolysate, acesfulfame K, sucralose, colors (Red 40, 40 Lake), BHT (to maintain freshness), aspartame.