By Catey Hill, SmartMoney.com
1. This is illegal in Canada
An hour after munching on some light potato chips -- made with fat substitute olestra -- Debra Jaliman, 55, a Manhattan dermatologist, found herself so sick with abdominal cramps that she had to cancel her slate of patients. Reactions like these are why the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy organization, says no one should eat olestra, and why Canada and the United Kingdom banned it. But it's legal here -- and you'll find it in foods like low- or non-fat chips, crackers and cookies. Procter & Gamble, which sells olestra under the name Olean, says that nearly 6.5 million servings of foods containing Olean have been consumed since 1996, the year the FDA approved olestra for U.S. use.
Olestra isn't the only banned substance that Americans are noshing on. Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, or rBGH (commonly sold under the name Posilac), a synthetic hormone injected into cows to stimulate milk production, pops up in many dairy-based snacks like ice cream. Not in the European Union or Canada, where it has been banned amid health concerns for both cows and humans, including fears that a hormone associated with cancer might be higher in people who drink milk treated with rBGH. (Eli Lilly, the company that manufacturers Posilac, denies these claims.) Meanwhile, rBGH is a lucrative product in the U.S.: A division of Eli Lilly bought Posilac for more than $300 million in 2008, and studies show Posilac can increase milk production in a cow by 15% or more, meaning more milk to sell.
2. We added pulverized insects to your snack
For Dr. James Baldwin, treating the 27-year-old woman for anaphylactic shock was easy, but figuring out what caused the reaction was a mystery. Several tests later, Baldwin discovered that the patient had a rare allergy to something she'd eaten -- the carcasses of ground-up, boiled beetles, which are often used in snack foods to create those lovely shades of red, purple and pink in everything from fruit juice to ice cream to candy. "It's a common colorant," Baldwin says.
No, you won't find the word "beetle" anywhere on food labels; instead, you'll likely see the less cringe-worthy "carmine," "carminic acid" or "cochineal extract." And the beetle's remains are big business. Peru, the largest exporter of cochineal in the world, produces about 2 million pounds of the dyestuff each year, according to Amy Butler Greenfeld, a Marshall Scholar at Oxford University and the author of "A Perfect Red," which examines the history of cochineal. Experts say the industry in Peru grew about 15% per year during the past decade -- and as the demand for natural color in foods grows, Greenfeld predicts that the cochineal industry will grow along with it.
3. Expiration date? There's no expiration date
We've all chuckled over the urban legend that a Twinkie will stay fresh in its plastic wrap forever. Turns out, it's not so far-fetched. The expiration date on highly-processed foods can be significantly longer than the date on the package, says Karen Duester, MS, RD, president of the Food Consulting Company, which advises companies on food labels and FDA regulations. In fact, if the product is well-sealed, kept away from light, and has a low-fat and dairy content, it could last for years. That's particularly true for canned snacks like maraschino cherries.
These "best by" dates are provided voluntarily by the manufacturer, but given that experts say these products are safe to eat after their expiration, why do they even bother? It encourages retailers to restock -- and reorder -- the product more often, says Duester. Plus, an expiration date pegged to 2015 isn't exactly appealing to a customer.
4. That energy bar may exhaust you
Ads for energy bars often feature athletes in top shape and, with names that evoke strength, well-being, and the great outdoors, they cultivate what food experts call "a health halo." These messages appear to resonate with consumers -- the nutrition and energy bar market is projected to grow more than 27% from $962 million in sales in 2003 to an estimated $1.23 billion in sales in 2013, according to market research firm Mintel.
But read the ingredients list, and many popular energy bars start to look shockingly like garden variety candy bars. That's because energy bars often contain ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, dextrose and fructose -- sugars, all -- plus chocolate, rice crispies and caramel. "These bars can be concentrated doses of sugar," says Sean C. Lucan, MD, MPH, MS, at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. That will give you an immediate burst of energy -- also known as a sugar rush -- just as you'd get from a candy bar. And then you'll crash, often feeling more tired than before you ate the bar, he says. (And maybe you reach for another energy bar.) Even for athletes these bars may not provide superior energy. A 1998 Ball State University study found that bagels provided the same aerobic performance boost as energy bars.
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5. There are pig bones in your pudding
Gelatin -- the substance used to make Jell-O, as well as many gummy candies, marshmallows, puddings and taffies -- is often made from the skin, bone and tendons of animals, usually cows or pigs. The manufacturer grinds up these animal parts, treats them with a strong acid or base for a few days to help release the collagen, then boils the mixture. Then, they scrape the gelatin, which rises to the top of this boiling mixture, from the vats. One big user, Kraft, sells 300 million boxes of Jell-O in the U.S. each year and offers 158 products under the Jell-O brand name. (Jell-O is even the "Official State Snack" of Utah.)
But the labels of these products don't tip most people off to the fact that there are animal parts in these jiggly snacks. For anyone who's vegan or kosher, that's a problem. Twenty-four year-old student Heather Bahler didn't find out there was meat in gelatin until a year after she'd become a vegetarian. "Once I found out, I was a little upset," she says. And even after vegetarians are aware that gelatin contains meat, it can still be hard avoid it. "To this day I find it in places I would never dream of," says Michael Garnett, a 37-year-old IT professional and 12-year vegetarian. His most recent discovery of hidden gelatin: Kellogg's Frosted Mini Wheats.
6. "Natural" is naturally meaningless
The USDA, which regulates meat and poultry, defines natural products as those that don't have artificial colors or ingredients. But the FDA, which regulates other types of food, doesn't monitor snack food manufacturers' use of the word as closely. "Natural basically has no meaning in food labeling," says Lucan. Often you'll see the term "natural flavor" on your snack package, which, paradoxically, doesn't actually mean "from nature." Chemicals produced in flavor laboratories are more likely, Lucan says. "While the same chemical compounds may be found in nature, the ones that end up in your food come from a chemical plant -- not a living plant," he says.
But natural sells, especially since consumers these days are more willing than ever to pay a higher price for foods they deem healthier, and Lucan says many are being misled. For example, one popular online grocery delivery service sells an 8-ounce bag of Cheetos' Natural White Cheddar Puffs, which contain ingredients like malodextrin and citric acid, for $4.19 -- 55% more than a larger (9 oz) bag of regular Cheetos ($2.69), which contains a similar list of ingredients (both contain corn meal, sunflower oil, citric acid, malodextrin, cheddar cheese, salt, whey and more).
7. We're spending billions to make kids fat
Christen Cooper, 38, was shocked when her son, then 2, pointed to the Dunkin' Donuts logo and called it out by name. As a registered dietician and founder of Cooper Nutrition, a nutrition counseling firm in Pleasantville, NY, Cooper says she talks to him about healthy eating and limits TV, but the messages from junk food marketers still infiltrate. "He demands fruit rollups and sugary cereal," she says. "He learns a lot of it from TV." Her son, now 7, is like many kids marketers target: He wants foods that use cartoon characters like Shrek on their packaging.
Snack food makers' messages to kids are ubiquitous and effective, even if it isn't as obvious to their parents. The U.S. food and beverage industry spends $10 to $12 billion each year -- or more than $1 million per hour -- marketing to children and youth, according to the Berkeley Media Studies Group, a public health advocacy organization that's a subsidiary of the Public Institute for Health. And packaged snacks, fast food and sweets account account for 83% of foods advertised during TV shows heavily viewed by children, according to a 2005 study published in the American Journal of Public Health.
8. Our factories are filthy
A dry roasted rat -- in your peanut butter? That's what one whistleblower -- who worked for Peanut Corporation of America, a prominent peanut factory in Blakely, Georgia that supplies companies like Kellogg -- claims. He says he saw the rat -- in addition to roaches -- roasting in vats of peanuts at the plant, which was the subject of a criminal investigation following a 2009 salmonella epidemic that experts say killed at least eight people. Investigators did not find rats when they visited, but they did find some big health violations including roaches, "gaping" holes in the roof that allowed rain to pour into the plant, mops that were washed in the same sink as the production equipment and mold.
Each year, more than 300,000 Americans are hospitalized and 5,000 die from contaminated foods and beverages, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. And a number of these incidents are the result of filthy conditions in food manufacturing plants.
And these are just the cases that we know about. Of the 51,229 food processing and manufacturing facilities regulated by the FDA, 56% have not been inspected at all in the past five years, according to a 2010 report by the inspector general of Department of Health and Human Services. And the number of inspections of so-called "high-risk" food facilities (those that produce foods most likely to make us sick) fell from 77% in 2004 to 63% in 2008 (for soft drinks and beverages it dropped from 29% to 16%, for bakery products from 41% to 24% and for chocolate and chocolate products from 32% to 12%).
9. Your candy bar habit is making us rich -- and infuriating retailers
The prices for chocolate candy have skyrocketed in the past decade. Their producer price index, which measures the prices chocolate producers receive for their products, jumped more than 40% from 2000 to 2009. (Cookies, crackers and related products, and the ice cream and frozen desserts categories rose just 24%.) Not surprisingly, total sales for the chocolate confectionary industry jumped too, from $13.4 billion in 2002 to an estimated $17.7 billion in 2009, according to market research firm Mintel.
Producers claim the price increases reflect rising cocoa or sugar prices. Grocers and other retailers say there's something else at work: illegal collusion among the candymakers. Since 2008, dozens of grocery store chains and retailers including Kroger, Safeway, Giant Eagle, Walgreen, SuperValu, Publix and CVS have filed lawsuits claiming that the big chocolate companies -- Hershey, Mars, Nestle and Cadbury Schweppes, which together control more than 75% of the chocolate candy market -- have colluded to keep prices high since 2002. In the Giant Eagle lawsuit, for example, the company declares that Hershey, Nestle and Mars engaged in a "conspiracy," when they raised prices in lockstep with one another. (They say that on December 23, 2004, Hershey raised the prices it charged Giant Eagle by 16.7%, then Nestle raised its prices 17.04% on January 12, 2005, then Mars raised its prices on March 6, 2005 by 15.6%.) It's "extremely rare" for grocery chains to file these kinds of suits because maintaining good relationships with suppliers of a popular product -- like chocolate -- are extremely important to the future of their business, according to Jim Hertel, a managing partner with food retailing consultant Willard Bishop.
10. When we say "enriched," we mean processed
Snack foods like pretzels, cookies and doughnuts often tout enriched wheat flour as an ingredient – as if it's a good thing. Not exactly. "Enriched" does mean that vitamins and minerals have been added to the food, but usually only after they've first been removed. A manufacturer first strips some vitamins and minerals through a refining process, and then puts some of the nutrients that were stripped away back in. "Enrichment really ought to be called 'partial restoration,'" says Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy organization that researches on and educates the public about health and nutrition. And although the enrichment process adds back nutrients like thiamine, niacin, riboflavin and iron, it doesn't always add them back in the same amounts and it can also cut out a good deal of fiber, he says.