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Food fake-out

Bacon bits with no bacon, onion rings with no onions, and other products with misleading names and images

Published: December 2013

Have you ever bought something “buttery” only to find that it contains no butter? How about onion rings with no onions? These days, you’ll find bacon bits without bacon, blueberry cereal without blueberries, and cream-filled cookies without anything from a cow.

A local shopping expedition and our Facebook fans turned up these examples. We asked companies to explain the connections, but most either didn’t respond or were vague.

“The taste of melted ice cream (from Cold Stone Creamery) in your coffee?” the label teases. “Pour it on, buckle up and blast off to the sweet ’n creamy stratosphere.” If you’re expecting a dollop of melted ice cream, you’re in for a hard landing. The Food and Drug Administration insists that real ice cream contain at least 10 percent milk fat. This creamer is mostly water, sugar, and palm oil.

The box pictures blueberries, but the ingredients show no evidence of actual fruit. They include whole-grain wheat, sugar, corn, and red and blue food coloring. A Kellogg’s consumer affairs specialist acknowledged the lack of blueberries, saying the cereal gets its flavor from a “confidential and proprietary” blend of natural and artificial flavors. Under FDA labeling rules, the company doesn’t have to be any more specific than that.

Bac’n bits have no meat. They’re a blend of soy flour, canola oil, salt, caramel color, maltodextrin (a thickener or filler), natural and artificial flavors, lactic acid, yeast extract, disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate (flavor enhancers), and red food dye. On the other hand, they are cholesterol-free.

There’s neither butter nor maple syrup in this topping, though a representative from Pinnacle Foods said that Mrs. Butterworth’s did include 2 percent real butter in the 1970s. Today’s version lists high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, water, salt, cellulose gum (a thickener), and molasses before a generic reference to “natural and artificial” flavor.

That white filling lacks milk, butter, eggs, or any other dairy component. (When we asked a Kraft customer-service rep what makes the filling smooth and creamy, she told us the answer was a trade secret.) Oreos have about a dozen ingredients, starting with sugar, flour, various vegetable oils, high-fructose corn syrup, and cocoa. Chocolate is the last ingredient.

The label shows a juicy orange, but the powdered breakfast drink is mostly sugar, fructose, and citric acid (for tartness). It contains less than 2 percent “natural” flavor. The neon orange coloring? It comes from food dyes, Yellow No. 5 and No. 6.

It looks and shreds like mozzarella. But real mozzarella must have at least 45 percent milk fat by weight of its solid ingredients and is made using a simple milk-and-rennet mixture. The imitation has about 20 ingredients, starting with water and partially hydrogenated soybean oil and including powdered cellulose to prevent caking. Casein, a milk protein, is the only dairylike ingredient.

“Relish real, robust onion ring flavor!” the label says. But these rings bear little resemblance to batter-dipped, deep-fried onion slices. The top three (of 17) ingredients: corn starch, tapioca starch, and vegetable oil. There are also four food colorings, one of them blue. As for real onions, a company rep said there aren’t any. These are onion-flavored rings, she noted, with a seasoning that includes garlic powder, paprika, and onion powder. It’s applied to the rings after they’re cooked.

Bottom line

Many commercially prepared products are loaded with the stuff of chemistry class and tend to be high in calories from added sugars. Our advice:

  • Look past pretty pictures and tasty names. Photos of fruit and words such as “butter” may convey a false impression of what’s inside. The truth is on the label. The FDA requires that ingredients be listed in descending order by weight.
  • Compare labels. Some processed foods have more extras than others. In addition to milk and cream, Kraft Simply Cottage Cheese includes whey, salt, modified food starch, guar, xanthan, carob bean gums, and carageenan. Daisy Cottage Cheese, on the other hand, has three ingredients: skim milk, cream, and salt.
  • Beware of buzzwords. There’s a reason companies use “bac’n” instead of bacon: It’s not the real deal. Potato “crisps” such as Lay’s can’t be “chips” because the FDA requires a chip to be thinly sliced potato fried in deep fat, not something fabricated from dried potatoes with cornstarch, sugar, and soy lecithin.
Editor's Note: This article appeard in the January 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
   

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