Sometimes, we have to be blunt. Otherwise, some people just don’t get it. Today is one of those days, and this post is one of those posts. I will be blunt – consider yourself warned.
The “All-Natural” Lie
Here goes: I don’t like companies that sell crap that is packaged fancily and marketed deceivingly. Take “all-natural” products that clearly have unnatural ingredients. Over the past few decades, the line between ‘natural’ and artificial has become blurrier than ever for food products, successfully deceiving many well-meaning consumers looking for affordable, relatively healthy snacks to pack in their children’s lunches. Check out this label below, for instance, taken from a Cheetos box:
Certainly if one were to ignore the lengthy ingredient list on the back, the word “all natural” can be enticing enough for the average shopper to feel safe picking this up from the store in a hurry. However, what the average consumer does not know is that the word “all-natural” is completely meaningless and unregulated, and says nothing about the oil used to make this snack. The bitter reality is that this bag of Cheetos is made with rancid, hydrogenated vegetable oils that were never meant to be consumed in the first place; and to add insult to injury, the majority of the ingredients are derived from genetically modified organisms. So even if the consumer were to take the time to read the ingredients, s/he wouldn’t know by reading them that these oils are not only unhealthy, but also processed from GMO corn, soybean and canola, which have been linked to organ damage, among other ailments.
From Unsustainable Farm to Lab … to Microwave to Plate
Along the same lines, many companies that are making wolves-disguised-as-sheep “all-natural” foods are also responsible for spreading misinformation about the sources of the ingredients they use in their products. You see, over the past several years, many smart, health-conscious individuals started catching on to the deceptive marketing tactics that many of these junk food companies were employing. In response, a grassroots movement began emerging to encourage consumers to learn about where our food comes from and to engage with local food growers. (Consider the irony: We think it’s paramount to know who is treating us at the hospital, but we don’t think twice about who grew our lettuce, or in which lab — yes, lab — our pre-packaged soy burgers were assembled. Strange, isn’t it?) As this desire to learn about food origins began to grow, the same companies making all-natural claims (and others more bold than these, that make incontestably junky food products) decided to capitalize on the movement, by including story lines in their commercials that bring attention to how supposedly fresh their food products are. Many show bucolic scenes of sprawling farmland and dewy harvested produce, implying that their products contain only these ingredients, unprocessed, and nothing else.
The only problem is that in most cases, the story line is almost entirely fictional, and leaves out the entire process of how the food product is actually made. Sure, there might be traces of what’s left of an actual food in there … but what has been injected into it, or how was it engineered? What kinds of chemicals have been added to it pre- and post-processing? How has it been processed — heated, dehydrated, chilled, evaporated, deodorized, etc? What preservatives have been infused into it, and how has this affected its nutritional profile? The questions that really matter are completely hidden and even purposely ignored, and the naive consumer is left distracted by the fairy tale of farm-to-table that the commercial has weaved.
I like working with examples, so I’ll give you the following commercial from Bob Evans as an example:
Here’s a short synopsis of the commercial in case you couldn’t watch the video.
Setting: A cute little boy and his mother are in the kitchen. She’s chopping fresh vegetables on the counter. He peers up at her with a most adorable expression and asks, “Where do mashed potatoes come from?” The following conversation transpires:
Mom: "Potatoes." Boy: "Where do potatoes come from?" Mom: "The farm." Boy: "Did you get these potatoes from the farm?" Mom: "No. But Bob did."
Mom removes the prepared mashed potatoes from the microwave.
Boy: "Who's Bob?" Mom: "Bob Evans. This is his recipe."
Mom places the mashed potatoes in front of the little boy, and he smells it up close.
Boy: "Mmm, he's a good cook." Mom: "I think so too." Voiceover: "For breakfast, for dinner, for generations. Discover the farm fresh taste of Bob Evans."
Boy goes over to dinner table to share with his family what he just learned.
At face value, this commercial seems innocent enough. Sure, Bob Evans’ packaged and preserved mashed potatoes surely have origins on some farm, because if they do contain any actual potatoes, said potatoes grew in the ground somewhere — probably Idaho if I had to guess. (This is not to mention that the potatoes were grown in monoculture, which is a completely unsustainable way to farm because it destroys biodiversity and encourages the use of massive amounts of chemical pesticides.) Leaving that aside, do you think it’s fair to say that the end product is farm-fresh as the video claims? Is Bob’s recipe homemade and all-natural “from the farm”? The commercial states that this is the case. Check out the ingredients below and let me know if farm-fresh is the first word that comes to mind (yes, keep reading past the first three ingredients):
Potato(es), Milk Whole, Butter (Cream Sweet, Salt, Annatto Color) , Margarine (Vegetable(s) Oil Blend [Soybean(s) Oil Liquid, Soybean(s) Partially Hydrogenated] , Water, Salt, Whey [Milk] , Soy Lecithin, Vegetable(s) Mono and Diglycerides, Sodium Benzoate, Flavor(s) Artificial, Citric Acid, Vitamin A Palmitate) , Salt, Potassium Sorbate To Protect Flavor, Disodium Pyrophosphate To Protect Color, Water, Spice(s), Color(s) Artificial
Margarine made of hydrogenated, genetically-modified soybean oil, mono and diglycerides, sodium benzoate, artificial flavors and colors … oh, it’s a mess. Eating this for “breakfast and dinner for generations” as the commercial suggests is a sure way to maintain a good level of toxins in your body. And toxins lead to weight gain, and you know, it just goes downhill from there. What this commercial fails to mention is how these mashed potatoes were actually made. Several months ago, I read a frightening article about how boxed mashed potato products specifically are manufactured. I can’t seem to locate the article anymore, but it was quite horrifying to see how the food was manipulated in the lab to have a specific texture, taste and feel using chemicals, flavors and wacky processing methods. To give you an idea, check out this video from 60 minutes about how natural and artificial flavors are made and used in food products. And this patent for extending the refrigerated shelf life of mashed potatoes should also give an impression of what’s involved in their making. When/if I ever find that article on the making of boxed mashed potatoes, I’ll be sure to update the post …
The Deceptive Practice of Farmwashing
The biggest issue I have with commercials like this is that they try to reassure naive consumers that their product is safe and pure by using deceptive practices. I have no problem with junk food existing on the grocery store shelves if no deceptive marketing is used to sell them. Now, I realize that to market a crappy product without using any deceptive messaging, one has to get pretty creative. For example, drawing attention to bad ingredients will drive down demand, so that’s out. However, there are certain problems that these food products solve than can be highlighted in the commercial, such as the “saving time” factor, and the convenience of pulling it out of the freezer and eating it hot a minute later. It’s true that crappy food products like boxed mashed potatoes are made to save time. While it doesn’t make sense to me personally to save time by eating crappy food now in order to spend time (and money) treating lifestyle diseases later, some people are willing to take that risk, even if it’s made incredibly clear what goes into these products and how harmful these “foods” may be in the long-run.
Don’t believe me? Consider smoking. It baffles me but some people still smoke, even with all the evidence that human lungs weren’t created to be a filter for nicotine and tar. The surgeon’s general warning on most packs of cigarettes fails to deter those individuals. Tobacco is harvested on farmland, but can you imagine how ludicrous it would be to show a cigarette commercial that maintains that smoking is healthy because one of the ingredients has originated on a farm?
McDonald’s is a pioneer of the farmwashing trend. If you haven’t heard of farmwashing, it’s the practice of deceiving consumers into thinking a food product is farm-fresh (i.e. straight from the farm and unprocessed or at least minimally processed) even though the product is in reality extremely processed and mixed with a cocktail of chemicals. With the emerging trend of farm-to-table and food source awareness, many corporations including junk food giants like McDonald’s are using deceptive marketing tactics like farmwashing to drive more customers to their doorsteps. Problem is … it’s infuriating to watch. Take a look at this McDonald’s commercial about how fresh their fries are (taken from this Grist article on farmwashing):
My personal reaction is one of disgust, but unfortunately many others react positively to this because they haven’t been exposed to the information of what goes into making McDonald’s fries. This video makes it look benign but a lot of the chemicals added during processing at the factory aren’t even mentioned.
A Farm-to-Table Fairy Tale: Stories Told to Your Children
Here’s another commercial aimed at children, also from McDonald’s, this time directly addressing the question of “where does our food come from?”. It takes the fairy tale marketing to a another (literal) level by actually answering the question in the form of a fairy tale, complete with allegorical references to a “kingdom” (farm) with “giants” (farm workers) and “breakfast wizards” (McDonald’s cooks) using “magic wands” (spatulas) to cook alluring, fresh food. Go ahead and take a minute to watch the commercial:
This makes some adults roll their eyes and pass it off as a typical, harmless sales tactic … but do you know how it might affect some unsuspecting kids? It’s intended to turn them into believers. Feelings of trust and comfort with the brand are exactly what McDonald’s wants to evoke. But even more than that, the real danger is the misinformation that becomes gospel in some children’s minds. To them, McDonald’s and farm-to-table eating become conflated into one … and before you know it, they may begin to really believe that a McDonald’s breakfast is made from scratch and cooked with love. Unfortunately, costly fairy tales like this one make for unhappy endings.
I do not want to belabor the point but I’ll summarize quickly since my rant was a little fragmented: marketing doesn’t have to be deceptive. For a company to claim their heavily processed food product came directly from a farm or was “home-cooked” from scratch is not only slightly misleading; it’s downright fraudulent and manipulative. It’s one thing to highlight the actual positives of a product (convenience, taste, cost, etc) and another thing entirely to allude to an alternate reality that doesn’t exist. No, McDonald’s cannot and should not claim to be concerned about sustainable agriculture — because anyone who knows how McDonald’s food is actually made would find that claim not only laughable, but also quite offensive. No, Bob Evan’s mashed potatoes that are packaged with preservatives are not “farm-fresh”. It’s time for a re-education: we can no longer watch by the sidelines as our young population continues to be brainwashed by corporations that lie through their teeth just to filch another dollar from a struggling single working mom or a young teenager.
Enough is enough. It’s time to really learn where our food comes from — who are the farmers who toil to bring real foods to our tables? How are these farm workers compensated? What goes into food production, and what is a fair price for organic food? How can we find out more about our local farms, and learn to “eat where you live”? (That’s Foodshed Magazine’s tagline – awesome, isn’t it?) If as a population we start realizing how crucial this is for our health, the health of our children, and the health of our planet, we can collectively make a big difference by demanding transparency. But before we start making a difference, we need to remove our blindfolds. When we see commercials like the ones above, we need to speak the truth about these foods … and share with others just how darn simple it is to whip up some homemade mashed potatoes. You can even make it with organic potatoes for less cost than the processed Bob Evans stuff, and with virtually no special cooking skills. It’s easier than you think – here’s the framework:
First step: Remove the blindfold. Realize that you don’t want to pay for boxed crap, marketed dishonestly.
Second step: Buy potatoes. Real, whole ones. Ideally from a local farmer or farmers’ market, but a grocery store will do if this is new to you.
Third step: Peel, chop and bake or boil. Add some whole milk or cream, real butter and seasonings of choice (at the very least, salt and pepper). You may or may not choose to have garlic breath; but life is short, so throw some in there.
Fourth step: Mash with a fork or if you’re fancy, use an immersion blender.
Fifth step: Eat and savor each truly farm-fresh bite!
Loved this cartoon even though it basically restates my whole article, in short form – hah!