Whether you’re dining out or whipping up an easy dinner at home, you like to think that the foods you eat are as advertised, right? Choosing fresh, whole foods is the easiest way to know you're getting what you pay for, but sometimes the convenience of a restaurant (or Seamless) wins out.
But even though you probably know that Cheez Whiz is a far cry from organic aged cheddar and bottled fruit juices don't grow on trees, we had no idea that these foods are masquerading as something they're not. (Sadly, we'll never look at sushi the same way!)
1. Red Velvet
We all have a friend who obsesses over red velvet cake (and of course, its signature cream cheese frosting. Mmm frosting.). But if they knew that the ruby-colored dessert was really just artificially colored chocolate cake, think they’d have the same reaction? Sadly the trademark red hue doesn't signify any special flavor: Most red velvet recipes call for around one or two tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder as well as about one teaspoon of vanilla extract to create that distinct (and delicious) light, chocolate-y taste. (But some chefs work around it by naturally tinting their tasty treats with beets.)
The Need-to-Know: A slice of red velvet cake or a cupcake isn't going to hurt you, but it's best to consider it an occasional indulgence, and not just because it's packed with sugar. "I try to minimize my exposure to artificial colorings, even though the negative impact of artificial food colorings is still controversial," says Greatist expert Mike Roussell, Ph.D., founder of Naked Nutrition.
If you’ve ever dipped a chopstick into that creamy green substance on your sushi plate (and got a runny nose and burning throat as reward), we’ve got another surprise for you: That spicy stuff is parading as something it’s not. Traditional Japanese wasabi is freshly grated (it loses its heat within a few minutes of being served) and can cost up to $100 per pound. (And you thought adding guac at Chipotle was pricy.) To save a major chunk of change, your local takeout spot likely serves a substitute that’s really a combination of mustard, horseradish, and green food coloring for the characteristic hue (95 to 99 percent of American sushi restaurants do). The horseradish mixture is still super hot but genuine wasabi has more of a pleasurable kick, and less of a searing, bitter taste.
The Need-to-Know: On the bright side, horseradish, like real wasabi, may offer some antibacterial health benefits Functional properties of wasabi and horseradish. Kinae N., Masuda H., Shin IS., et al. Biofactors. 2000;13(1-4):265-9.. But with the horseradish mixture, you're ingesting some artificial flavors and colors as well. However since you're eating such a small amount (unless your mouth has gone numb!) it probably doesn't make much of a difference. Bottom line: There doesn't seem to be any real harm in the fake stuff, Roussell says.
3. Crab Meat
Sorry to bust your bubble again, sushi lovers (especially if your go-to is a California roll): Those crab pieces aren’t, in fact, meat from a creature that lives on the bottom of the sea. So what are you eating? Imitation crab, which is technically called kamaboko, a processed seafood made of surimi (the pulverized paste of white fish flesh). The paste is frozen, shaved into flakes, and ground in a vat with starch, egg whites, and crab-like flavorings. Oh yeah, and then it’s colored with orange food dye to make it appear more “crabby.” How’s that for appetizing?
The Need-to-Know: "Imitation crab meat is like the hot dog of seafood," Roussell says. "Once in a while it isn't going to kill you, but you should do better for your body." Sushi can still be a healthy choice, but stick with salmon or yellowfin tuna to ensure you’re eating what you think you ordered. Also, Roussell recommends steering clear of tilefish, shark, and swordfish due to their high mercury content.
4. White Chocolate
File this away for Valentine’s Day: That box of white chocolates isn’t the heart-boosting sweet we’ve come to think of chocolate as (and use as an excuse to eat it regularly). Real chocolate contains three must-have components: chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, and cocoa solids (often in addition to other ingredients). But the white kind lacks chocolate liquor and cocoa solids—which means it’s also missing flavanols, the antioxidants that give the authentic stuff nutritional benefits. In fact, in 2004 the Food and Drug Administration ruled that in order for a product to be called “white chocolate,” it has to contain at least 20 percent cocoa butter and no more than 55 percent sugar or other sweeteners. (This was to stop many manufacturers from using cheaper fats like vegetable oil instead of including cocoa butter).
The Need-to-Know: Despite the FDA ruling, there are still some imposters out there, so look for high-quality white chocolate with cocoa butter, which has an ivory—not pure white—hue. Even better, switch to dark chocolate.
5. Pomegranate Juice
Studies suggest that drinking pomegranate juice may help prevent certain health conditions like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and congestive heart failure Pomegranate juice: a heart-healthy fruit juice. Basu, A., Penugonda, K. Nutrition Reviews. 2009. Jan;67(1):49-56.. Sound too good to be true? It might be if you’re not picky about which bottle you grab. A number of reports in the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention’s Food Fraud Database found that juices claiming to be pomegranate were actually made of grape juice and grape skins. And in 2014, Pom Wonderful successfully sued Coca-Cola for false advertising after its Minute Maid Pomegranate Blueberry blend turned out to be made almost entirely from apple and grape juice, with only 0.1 percent pomegranate juice.
The Need-to-Know: Since there is some science that points to pomegranate's superfood qualities, you don't have to give it up entirely. Just take this as another reminder to read labels (fun as that is, we know) to be sure your drink is 100 percent pomegranate. Or learn the best way to deseed a pomegranate and reap all the health benefits in your own kitchen.
6. Breakfast Syrup
Whipping up a batch of waffles (or even better, protein pancakes) this weekend? You may want to think twice before adding your toppings. Most breakfast syrups found at the grocery store are nothing like traditional maple syrup, which can be a healthy choice. Instead of the real stuff from maple trees, lots of commercial versions are made of two types of corn syrup along with a ton of artificial additives and zero nutritious value (sorry, Aunt Jemima).
The Need-to-Know: Try to avoid the colored corn syrup and go for a bottle that lists 100 percent pure maple syrup as its one and only ingredient. Not only is it a sweeter way to top your flapjacks, but it also contains nutrients like zinc, which helps support your immune system, Roussell says.
7. Bacon Bits
From popcorn to soap and even deodorant, bacon continues to be all the rage. But fans of the fatty pork product won’t be too pleased to know that those “bacon bits” are technically vegan! Lacking any animal products, these crispy bites are made of artificially flavored textured soy flour and other ingredients including caramel color, maltodextrin, yeast extract, and flavor enhancers called disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate.
The Need-to-Know: Whether you eat meat or not, you want to skip this fake food. If you want bacon on your potato, simply chop up a slice of the real thing and sprinkle it on—one tablespoon of bacon isn't going to hurt you, Roussell says. Or try some of these delicious ways to top your spuds with actual food instead.
8. Veggie Burgers
A vegetable-based patty certainly sounds like the better-for-you option over a juicy, medium-rare burger. The problem is that veggies masquerading as meats are usually made of few, if any, actual vegetables! Instead they’re often filled with over-processed ingredients, including wheat gluten, soy, and vegetable oil. A report also found that some patties contain hexane, a potentially toxic by-product of gasoline refining. (What?!) As if that’s not enough, some veggie burgers are packed with sodium (as much as 400-plus milligrams—more sodium than a single-serving bag of potato chips—per patty).
9. Popcorn “Butter”
You know that liquid that squirts out of a canister at the theater? No spoiler alert here: It is (dangerously) far from the real, grass-fed deal. This “buttery topping” (as it’s called on manufacturers’ websites) is typically made mainly from hydrogenated soybean oil (a trans fat), artificial flavoring, beta carotene for color, and preservatives. One tablespoon of the topping delivers nine grams of saturated fat—half a day’s limit—plus half a gram of naturally occurring trans fat, the really bad stuff that lowers “good” HDL cholesterol and raises “bad” LDL cholesterol Effects of Dietary Fat Intake on HDL Metabolism. Yanai H., Katsuyama H., Hamasaki H. J Clin Med Res. 2015 Mar;7(3):145-9.. Even more: One common flavoring agent is diacetyl, a toxic substance that has been associated with lung disease.
The Need-to-Know: You’re much better off popping and flavoring your own corn at home (try one of these 30 delicious and healthy variations). You didn't hear it from us, but if you pack your homemade snack inside a shoebox, no one will suspect anything (except that you scored a new pair of kicks before coming to the theater).