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Big Food Crimes: Farmwashing, Ruining Oatmeal

By this point, Big Food’s nutritional rap sheet is longer than the ingredient list for Pop Tarts — and it only continues to grow.

A recent stroll through supermarket aisles has uncovered even more felonies of deception and extreme processing.

These products are considered armed (with lousy ingredients) and dangerous (for your health). If you spot them, do not approach them. Keep walking.

Stouffer’s is giving farmwashing a try with its Farmers’ Harvest line. The packaging evokes a pastoral sunrise and highlights certain ingredients (i.e.: a red bell pepper, a wedge of cheese, strands of wheat).

Very lovely. Now take a look at the ingredients in the Farmers’ Harvest “made with whole grain” mac and cheese:

Blanched Macaroni Made with Whole Grain (Water, Grain Blend with Whole Wheat Flour [Semolina, Unenriched Durum Whole Wheat Flour], Wheat Gluten), Skim Milk, Water, Cheddar Cheese (Milk, Cheese Culture, Salt, Enzymes, Annatto Color), Cheddar Club Cheese (Cheddar Cheese [Cultured Milk, Salt, Enzymes], Water, Salt, Annatto Color), Bleached Wheat Flour, Margarine (Liquid and Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Water, Salt, Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Vegetable Mono & Diglycerides, Natural Flavor [Milk], Soy Lecithin, Beta Carotene [Color], Vitamin A Palmitate Added), 2% or Less of Soybean Oil, Sea Salt, Potassium Chloride, Xanthan Gum, Yeast Extract, Lactic Acid, Calcium Lactate.

Did you catch the whole grain trickiness? This is not a 100% whole grain product, but rather a blend of semolina (refined white flour) and whole wheat flour; based on the order in which those ingredients appear, there is more white flour than whole wheat flour in that blend.

More importantly, I wonder what farms procure partially hydrogenated oils (artificial fats made in a laboratory) and ‘natural flavor’. The meat lasagna variety contains caramel color (a suspected carcinogen), an ingredient I have yet to find at any farmers’ market.

Over at the cereal aisle, leave it to PepsiCo-owned Quaker to turn something as healthful and nutritious as oatmeal into a highly processed disaster. Case in point: Quaker’s Lower Sugar Instant Oatmeal Fruit & Cream Variety Pack.

Here, too, we have some ingredient sneakiness going on. The front of the box prominently features a: “50% less sugar than our regular oatmeal” statement.  What isn’t quite as evident is the presence of artificial sweeteners (Splenda, to be exact).

The ingredient list includes sucralose — the generic name for Splenda — but most consumers don’t know the popular artificial sweetener by that name. Why isn’t there a large Splenda logo on the box, or at the very least a clear mention that this product contains artificial sweeteners?

The strawberry and peach pieces aren’t strawberries or peaches, by the way. They are actually dehydrated apples (treated with sodium sulfite) mixed with artificial flavor. In the case of the “strawberries”, petroleum-derived Red Dye #40 is tacked on. You know, for “realness”.

Both products also contain partially hydrogenated oils. Trans fats in oatmeal? What is the world coming to?

The ingredient list states they are present in a “dietarily insignificant” amount. However, these oils appear before sodium, which is present at 190 mg per packet. We can therefore conclude each packet of oatmeal contains at least 190 milligrams of these oils (of which a significant part are trans-fatty acids). Considering that the recommendation for trans fat is zero, “trivial amounts” are not reassuring.

Remember, one of the most comprehensive studies on trans fats — published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2006 — concluded that:

On a per-calorie basis, trans fats appear to increase the risk of coronary heart disease more than any other macronutrient, conferring a substantially increased risk at low levels of consumption (1 to 3 percentof total energy intake).

In other words, man-made trans fats are to be avoided, not consumed in “dietarily insignificant amounts”. FDA, are you listening?

To make matters worse, the actual oatmeal (fruit aside) contains artificial flavors and is partially sweetened with corn syrup, thereby adding a genetically modified ingredient to a whole grain food that is otherwise not genetically engineered.

Update: Thank you to reader Hannah, who points out that even Quaker’s plain instant oat packets contain caramel color. Please, Quaker, let oats be oats!

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Please consider sharing this all-points bulletin with your loved ones so their health is not unwillingly compromised.

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20 Comments

  1. Sarah said on December 14th, 2011

    I recently encountered another ruined food – almonds! My fault for not reading the ingredients before buying, but Emerald Cinnamon Almonds contain not one, but two, artificial sweeteners – Ace-K and Sucralose. Ugh!

  2. Elizabeth | HEALing Foodie said on December 14th, 2011

    I knew those packaged flavored oatmeal are a scam but had no idea about the apples passing off as strawberries!
    Recently on a camping trip, I tried making some hot breakfast with quick oats and hot water in a travel mug. After a little stirring, the oats were “cooked” perfectly. With a sprinkle of toasted coconut and dried cherries, I’m not sure why anyone needs to succumb to these oatmeal flakes with pseudo fruits.

  3. Andy Bellatti said on December 14th, 2011

    Sarah,

    How frustrating — especially when you’re talking about something like almonds, which at most may need a little roasting and spices.

  4. Hannah said on December 14th, 2011

    Quaker can ruin even plain oatmeal. For some reason, their individual instant plain oatmeal packets contain caramel color. WHY?

  5. Andy Bellatti said on December 14th, 2011

    Ugh, really? How unnecessary and disappointing. Thanks for the tidbit.

  6. Mandy Yotty said on December 14th, 2011

    Obviously you didn’t read the label on the Mac n cheese very well. There is actually more whole wheat than bleached flour. Also just because something has 190 milligrams doesn’t mean it is a significant percentage. This article is just as guilty as the food industry at fabricating facts.

  7. Andy Bellatti said on December 15th, 2011

    Mandy,

    Seems you are confused. Read the ingredient list carefully. To recap:

    * The first ingredient is “blanched macaroni made with whole grain” (note that it is not “blanched whole wheat macaroni”)
    * That macaroni is made from water and a “grain blend with whole wheat flour”
    * The first ingredient in that grain blend is semolina, which is a refined (white) flour.
    * The *next* ingredient in that blend is whole wheat flour

    Therefore, the grain blend contains more white flour than whole wheat.

    As I explain in the post regarding the trans fat issue, 190 milligrams is significant, when “as little” as 1 gram of trans fats has negative health consequences. This is exactly how people end up consuming more trans fat than they think. 190 mg here, 230 mg here, 400 mg here (all of which can legally be labeled as “zero grams per serving”) and you can have a gram or two by the time the day is over. You need to keep context in mind. 190 milligrams of fiber is negligible; 190 milligrams of trans fat should not be dismissed as trivial.

  8. Brandon said on December 15th, 2011

    You cannot conclude that there is at least 190mg trans fat per serving. Not every gram, or milligram in this case, of fat in a partially hydrogenated oil is in the trans configuration. Second, if even milligrams of trans fat are to be avoided, then I couldn’t eat any oil, or any food with fat in it, since any fat has trace amounts of trans fat.

  9. Stephanie said on December 15th, 2011

    Andy,

    I recently became a big follower of your blog. This post definitely hits close to home. I have to say being an RD myself, it’s frustrating to see patients/friends/family/coworkers consume products laden with artificial ingredients. People who thrive on frozen entrees from LeanCuisine, Healthy choice, Smart Ones etc make me cringe.

    But who would’ve thought OATMEAL of all things would have “insignificant” amounts of trans fat? Oh, the irony. Quaker lovers are better off buying their Old Fashioned Oats in bulk (they’re microwavable & don’t have any “extra” ingredients)

  10. Andy Bellatti said on December 15th, 2011

    Brandon,

    It appears you are confused on both the issues you brought up.

    We can certainly conclude there are at least 190 mg of trans fat per serving. Partially hydrogenated oils (which are trans fats) appear before salt on the ingredient list (ingredients are listed in order, by weight, from highest to lowest). It is not “fat” that is listed as an ingredient, but specifically “partially hydrogenated oils”.

    I am aware that salt and sodium are not the same thing (salt is a mixture of sodium and chloride), but the fact remains that trans fats appear first, which means they are present in higher amounts than sodium.

    Also, you are confusing the trans fat issue. There are some naturally-occurring trans fats in grass-fed beef and dairy that are harmless, but the concern is specifically with partially hydrogenated oils, which are man-made trans fats.

    I am not sure what you mean about oils or high-fat foods. Oils that are not processed (i..e: virgin olive oil, virgin coconut oil) do not contain any partially hydrogenated oils. Similarly, there are no man-made artificial fats in unprocessed nuts or seeds. An avocado, for example, does not provide any partially hydrogenated oils. Partial hydrogenation must happen at a processing plant.

  11. Andy Bellatti said on December 15th, 2011

    Stephanie,

    Thank you; glad to hear you enjoy the blog. Yes, it is particularly frustrating when something as “simple” as oats is loaded with all sorts of unnecessary and artificial ingredients.

  12. Brandon said on December 15th, 2011

    There does seem to be some confusion. Let me try again.

    You are saying that every fatty acid in a “partially hydrogenated oil” is a polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fatty acid with at least one double bond in the trans configuration. You say that when you make the following statement: “However, these oils appear before sodium, which is present at 190 mg per packet. We can therefore conclude each packet of oatmeal contains at least 190 milligrams of trans fat.”

    I am saying that some fatty acids in a partially hydrogenated oil will be saturated fatty acids or will be mono/poly and unaffected by the processing and still be in the cis configuration. Therefore, I don’t think you can justifiably make the statement you are making.

    For the second point, 2 of the 3 statements you make (well, one is a quote) regarding trans fat don’t refer specifically to ‘man-made’ trans fat, hence my ‘confusion’. Also, I don’t see the difference (from a biological standpoint) between a naturally occuring fatty acid that is 18:2 with trans at n=6 and a man-made one of the same length and saturation.

  13. Andy Bellatti said on December 15th, 2011

    Brandon,

    I understand your point about partially hydrogenated oil containing some fatty acids in the ‘cis’ configuration. I will edit the post to make this clearer.

    However, precisely because we don’t know the total amount of partially hydrogenated oil, we don’t know how much trans fat there is in the final product. We know there are at least 190 milligrams of partially hydrogenated oils; there could very well be 100 or more milligrams of trans fat in the final product.

    In terms of man-made versus naturally occurring trans fat — they are very different. CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) is an example of a healthful, naturally occurring trans fat: http://www.eatwild.com/cla.html

  14. Brandon said on December 15th, 2011

    Hi Andy,

    Yes I know there are some good trans fats, like CLA. :) I was saying, if you took the exact same fatty acid, let’s say Elaidic Acid (18:1, trans @ n=9), does it matter the source? If it comes from partial hydrogenation (man-made) or from cow’s milk (natural), isn’t still just as damaging (lowers HDL, raises VLDL/LDL)? I realize there may be more of it in Partially Hydrogenated Oils, but I think 100mg of elaidic acid will have the same effect, regardless of source.

    Always a pleasure talking to you,
    Brandon

  15. Andy Bellatti said on December 15th, 2011

    I think it’s important to look at specific fatty acids, rather than a larger category. After all, not all saturated fatty acids have the same effect on the body. CLA is not one of the man-made trans fats, so you will never find it in partially hydrogenated oils.

  16. Norma said on December 16th, 2011

    The nitpicking over trans fat gram counts is distracting from the real issue and point of the post, on which, I assume, we CAN agree: Big Food uses attractive colorful packaging touting the “health” buzzwords of the moment (which are often lies of omission; e.g., “50% less sugar” with no mention of the sweetness being compensated for by Splenda, and using the chemical name sucralose rather than the brand name most consumers recognize), and that there is no need on earth for OATMEAL to have an ingredient list that includes masquerading fruits, artificial colors, any type of sweeteners; natural or artificial and caramel color? Just as most people I know dump additional salt on their sodium-heavy processed food choices with little to no understanding of what’s in the ingredients nor proper daily amounts of sodium, I know many people dump additional sugar on their already-sweetened cereal products with no regard for how much sugar they’re taking in.

  17. Marc Brazeau said on December 16th, 2011

    As a point of historical interest, settlers in Montana and Idaho used to make a mock apple pie with potatoes and vinegar. Americans used to eat pie for three meals a day and they love apple pie so much that when they couldn’t make apple pie they got creative.

    PS This is not a defense of fake strawberries.

  18. Andy Bellatti said on December 16th, 2011

    Thank you, Norma, for capturing the essence of the post and understanding the big picture!

  19. Andy Bellatti said on December 16th, 2011

    Marc,

    Interesting tidbit. At least the settlers weren’t using petroleum-derived artificial colors and flavors for “added realism”.

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