Food manufacturers think you're stupid. In fact, they’re banking on it. Why else would Hershey’s put a ribbon on the Good & Plenty box that says “A fat-free candy.” Sure, it's true—no fat in the box—but it's also very misleading. The candy is essentially 100 percent sugar and processed carbs. And Hershey knows the average American equates fat-free with being good for you.
Another example: Between 2005 and 2008, as the organic movement gathered steam, the prevalence of “simple” or “simply” on food labels increased by 65 percent. Food marketers pinpointed how our expectations were changing, and began using that knowledge to keep us buying unhealthy processed foods.
While researching our latest book, Eat This, Not That! 2011, we spotted more minefields than ever—in restaurants, at supermarkets, in your own pantry. That’s why we cornered food-industry insiders and asked them to come clean. What they told us may shock you. Go ahead, dig in.
1. The average American has easy access to 2,700 calories each day, according to the USDA, versus just 2,200 in 1970. That food is on their plates and in their refrigerators, or neatly lining the vending machines at work. In other words, potential calories are everywhere. And studies show a direct correlation between food exposure and consumption. If 500 calories a day doesn't sound like much, consider: that’s 52 pounds a year.
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2. The average American drinks 450 liquid calories a day. That’s twice as much as we consumed 30 years ago, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina. What’s to blame? Take your pick: sodas, energy drinks, lattes, bottled teas, milk shakes. (Here are the most sinister culprits—the 20 worst drinks in America.)
3. Fresh fruits and vegetables cost 10 times more than junk food, according to researchers at the University of Washington. A thousand calories of nutritious food cost $18.16, while a thousand calories of junk food cost a mere $1.76. How do they keep junk-food costs so low? Pretty simple, actually: flavor enhancers and other chemical additives. Speaking of . . .
4. There are more than 3,000 items on the FDA’s list of approved food additives—everything from acesulfame potassium (an artificial sweetner that animal studies have linked to breast cancer) to Yellow #5 (a food coloring linked to learning and concentration disorders in children).
Bonus Tip: Click here for a list of food additives to avoid.
5. Your food can legally contain maggots and rat poop. Sure, the FDA limits the amount of such appetite killers in your food, but that limit isn't zero. Trace amounts won’t make you sick, but the thought of them will.
6. Smaller portions are equally as satisfying as larger portions. Participants in a Penn State study ate macaroni and cheese over four different days, and when presented with bigger portions, they consumed an extra 160 calories. Despite the extra food, they rated their fullness the same.
7. Between 1977 and 1996, the average cheeseburger grew in size by 25 percent. In that same time, a bag of pretzels grew by 93 calories, according to analysis by researchers in North Carolina. But you don't have to give up the burgers to stay thin, but it helps to avoid the 15 Worst Burgers in America.
8. What do hamburgers and fertilizer have in common? Turns out, hamburgers—especially the stuff served at schools and fast food restaurants—are routinely treated with ammonia to kill off E. coli bacteria. That’s the same substance used in fertilizers and household cleaners.
9. There's a good chance chicken will make you sick. In a 2006 Consumer Reports review, more than 80 percent of whole broiler chickens bought nationwide contained campylobacter or salmonella—the leading causes of foodborne illness in America.
10. Junk food is like a drug. A study in the journal of Nature Neuroscience found that eating junk food doesn’t just satisfy cravings—it creates them. That’s right; junk food is addictive. That's why manufacturers load their foods with sugar, salt, and artificial flavorings, and why you should never forget the golden rule: If your food can go bad, it's good for you. If it can't go bad, it's bad for you.
11. Only 19 percent of what you pay for a food product actually goes toward the food itself. The rest pays for packaging, labor, and marketing, according to USDA data. Yet another reason to buy fresh, local ingredients.
12. Food companies pay “slotting fees” to supermarkets to ensure the best possible placement—an average of $70 per item, according to a 2004 government report. These fees are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. Pay less by shopping the tops and bottoms of the shelves; that’s where you’ll find brands that aren’t paying slotting fees.
13. The leanest cuts of meat may have the highest sodium levels. Leaner cuts by definition are less juicy. To counteract this, some manufacturers "enhance" turkey, chicken, and beef products by pumping them full of a liquid solution that contains water and salt.
14. Long checkout lines may make you fat. If you’re waiting to pay, you're up to 25 percent more likely to buy the candy and sodas around you, according to a recent study at the University of Arizona.
15. Calorie counts may be wrong. To ensure you're getting at least as much as you pay for, the FDA is more likely to penalize a food manufacturer for overstating the net weight of a product than understating it. As a result, manufacturers often package more food than the stated net weight or make servings heavier than the stated serving size weight.
Bonus Tip: Another year, another shocking list of catastrophic dishes! Check out our 2011 editon of The 20 Worst Foods in America.
EAT RIGHT RULE: The best bedtime snack is a bowl of bran cereal with skim milk. The slow-burning carbs will ease you into slumber. FOLLOW DAVE ZINCZENKO ON TWITTER and get FREE live-better secrets every day!
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