Food that isn’t food. Wasting money when you think you’re saving money.

imitation cheeseimitation cheeseAs a dad of four and the grocery shopper of the house, I’m always looking for the best deal while keeping in mind the nutrition that I’m providing my family. I’ve always held the position that one thing I can help my children with that will affect them well into their adulthood is how I feed them along with how I raise them. Having said that, over the years I’ve become aware of many types of products being sold under the guise of food, which in fact are void of nutritional content and in many cases I don’t even know what these products are truly made of or from. You may save money – but you’re not eating anything that is good for you, and the opposite is more likely true. A recent story on Reddit made me want to write about this topic.

While “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair highlighted the poor working conditions and inadvertently brought attention to food safety in the US in the early 1900’s, one could argue that we’re not much safer today with the repeal of legislation in the 1970s that allows imitation food to be presented as real food as long as they are nutritionally equivalent. The problem is, there’s major concern over the fact that these imitation products are not in fact nutritionally equivalent.

The 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act imposed strict rules requiring that the word “imitation” appear on any food product that was, well, an imitation … [And] the food industry [argued over the word], strenuously for decades, and in 1973 it finally succeeded in getting the imitation rule tossed out, a little-notice but momentous step that helped speed America down the path of nutritionism.

… The American Heart Association, eager to get Americans off saturated fats and onto vegetable oils (including hydrogenated vegetable oils), was actively encouraging the food industry to “modify” various foods to get the saturated fats and cholesterol out of them, and in the early seventies the association urged that “any existing and regulatory barriers to the marketing of such foods be removed.”

And so they were when, in 1973, the FDA (not, note, the Congress that wrote the law) simply repealed the 1938 rule concerning imitation foods. It buried the change in a set of new, seemingly consumer-friendly rules about nutrient labeling so that news of the imitation rule’s appeal did not appear until the twenty-seventh paragraph of The New York Times’ account, published under the headline F.D.A. PROPOSES SWEEPING CHANGE IN FOOD LABELING: NEW RULES DESIGNED TO GIVE CONSUMERS A BETTER IDEA OF NUTRITIONAL VALUE. … The revised imitation rule held that as long as an imitation product was not “nutritionally inferior” to the natural food it sought to impersonate—as long as it had the same quantities of recongized nutrients—the imitation could be marketed without using the dreaded “i” word.

Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (pgs. 34-35, 2008)

Below, I’m going to talk about several products that are fake or imitation that are sold right next to the “real thing,” that you wouldn’t know otherwise, unless you took a closer look. Next, I’m going to discuss how to look at what you’re buying to determine if the product is in fact real or fake (imitation or analogue). After reading this information, you will hopefully be able to walk into a grocery store and know which “food” products you should avoid in favor of marginal savings, that will likely come back to bite you in the long run. Remember, frugal isn’t cheap, it’s finding the best value for your dollar, while minimizing waste.

Before I get started on the products, here’s a quote from an article you should read (from a guy who worked for the FDA) that provides some background on why you cannot trust the FDA to protect you from these imitation foods:

Imitation Products. Food processors do not like food standards, since they feel that they discourage competition. The requirement of the FD&C Act that a food that is an imitation of another food, especially a standardised food, be labeled as “Imitation” if it is an imitation of another food, especially a standardised food, has been ignored by the agency for the past thirty years. FDA asserted in the early 1970s that if a food that was “nutritionally equivalent” to another food could be given a new name and sold in competition with the standardised product. According to FDA, “nutritional equivalence” meant that a valuable constituent such as fat could be reduced, since calorie-containing ingredients of foods were not counted as nutrients. This led to products that are imitations of standardised or other foods. Many of these imitation products are substitutes for more generally wholesome and well-understood products. Other imitation products contain large amounts of water and emulsifiers, and usually sell at higher prices than more nutritious traditional or standardised products. The great number of products may also have led to consumer confusion. Effective consumer education on how to eat for better nutrition has become more difficult due to the plethora of confusing, adulterated and misbranded products that are allowed on the market due to misguided FDA policy that has a direct connection to the high level of consumer confusion.

Fake, imitation and or analogue products sold right next to the real thing include but are not limited to:

  • Imitation Cheese (not called imitation cheese, sometimes referred to as cheese slices and other variations)
  • Imitation Crab (typically clearly labeled but not always)
  • Syrup
  • Jams and Jellies
  • Mustard, other Condiments
  • Chocolate
  • Butter and Margarine
  • Spices
  • Candies and confectioneries
  • Prescription medications
  • Juices
  • Milk
  • Meats
  • Ice Cream
  • Frozen Dinners

It’s probably better to just be skeptical of everything you’re purchasing, because more than likely there’s an imitation product hiding amongst the real ones. Moreover, this article does not even speak to processed foods and their detriment to your health. Educate yourself on processed foods and why you should avoid them if you’re concerned with your health.

With regards to answering the question, “How can I tell if it’s fake or imitation food,” unfortunately there’s no easy answer. You must learn the products you’re buying and understand the variations and health related information.

Let’s take cheese as an example, substitute and imitation cheese are commonly called “analogue” cheese. These cheeses typically use casein, a milk by-product and vegetable oil in place of milk solids. They offer functional advantages as well as cost savings, but as you can guess, they’re probably not good for you.

Look at the costlier products and their ingredients, compare those cost to the cheaper products. Start by doing research on the products you consume the most, and educate yourself on those. A good rule of thumb you could start with, if you don’t know what’s in the product you’re buying, don’t buy it!

Here’s a resource to help you get started understanding what you’re eating.

What are some products that you know of that I missed above that people should watch out for? Can you provide any tips to help your fellow consumers better understand what they’re buying?

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4 Comment

  1. Chris Scott says:

    Great post. And it’s true–kids’ eating habits have a huge effect on their emotional health.

    I have a few rules for shopping. They go a long way toward keeping me away from imitation products, and they’re pretty simple.

    –Don’t eat anything that’s advertised on TV (eggs and milk are the exception).
    –Don’t eat anything that comes in a box (butter, pasta and rice are the exception).
    –Other than oils and dairy, don’t eat anything that wasn’t alive three weeks ago.

    Also, carefully reading the label can really help when trying to avoid imitation products. Anything that has an ingredient you can’t pronounce, you should avoid.

  2. Lance says:

    Here’s a good case in point:

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by financedadblog: New post: Food that isn’t food. Wasting money when you think you’re saving money. (…

  4. Chris Brown says:

    Excellent article and relevant topic. Michael Pollen was feature in
    the Oscar nominated documentary Food Inc (2009) that highlights
    many health concerns in the US food industry including:
    -US mass production of meat thru 13 slaughter houses nationwide.
    – Many FDA leaders were former executives for corporate farming, and now require fewer health inspections by thousands.
    Corn is exponentially over produced and fed to cattle and poultry causing higher fat content and easier speed of diseases during raising like ecoli. Instead of returning to natural methods like grass feeding and graising chemicals and antibiotics are used.
    -since over subsidized and mass over production of corn has occurred in he eay 1970’s, obesity has increased rapidly in the US. (in addition, see film King Corn)

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