If you've seen any documentaries about food - Super Size Me and Food, Inc among them -  you're probably aware that the food world can sometimes be a scary place. Unsavory practices and unhygienic conditions are among a few of the unsettling realities of mass-produced food, but it doesn't end there.  Here are 5 facts about the food industry that you should probably be aware of - not to scare you away from eating whatever you choose to eat, but to make your choices more informed!  

1. Not all ingredients appear on labels.

How do fast food burger companies make sure their burgers are (mostly) e.coli free? They put their ground beef through a cleaning process done with ammonia! It's safe according to the USDA, but  incidents of meat infected with salmonella and e.coli have brought the effectiveness of ammonia cleaning into question - not to mention the odor and taste of ammonia often present in freshly delivered batches of ground beef.

That's just one example of ingredients present in the food that don't appear anywhere on the label. Considering ingredient lists for most mass-produced food is already confounding, it's mind-boggling to think what else might be in there.

2. Visible shelf space is paid advertising

Popular food manufacturer's buy the most visible shelf spaces in order to position their products more advantageously. End-aisle displays and the most easily-reachable, frontally located shelf spaces are just another form of paid advertising. If you want to buy the less rigorously advertised, quality products, you can usually find them in the harder to reach locations with decreased visibility.

3. Ingredients don't have to be explained.

What is "Natural red 4"? It's found in juice, ice cream, candies, and lipstick, so it's probably some kind of berry or something right? Actually, it's a red pigment derived from Cochineals - insects native to subtropical South America! If you're worried, calm down - since 2006, it's been required for labels to specifically list "carmine" as an ingredient due to severe allergic reactions that arose as a result of the bug's consumption.

However, this issue illustrates a greater problem: think of the tons of inscrutable ingredients in foods that are never explained.  Another example is "cellulose." It's popping up in all kinds of foods, from ice cream to muffins - but what is it, actually?  Wood pulp. The same pulp, in fact, that is used to make newspapers and other non-food items.  

4. Processing foods greatly reduces nutritional value

Companies stretch their resources as thin as possible to increase profit margins. Why sell whole apples when you can sell 10x as many apple-flavored fruit leathers?  Or gallons of apple juice? This makes sense from a business perspective, but the food's nutritional value takes a major hit.  The more food is processed, the less nutritional value it retains, and the more likely it is that the food contains non-nutritive additives.

For example, most orange juice isn't produced "fresh squeezed" the way you might expect. To preserve orange juice for year-round consumption, it's stored in vats without oxygen - a process which often causes the juice to lose its flavor. In order to "re-flavor" the juice, they add citrus-fragrances and chemicals to it, similar to those found in perfumes.  

5. Health claims are often unfounded

When Quaker Oats came to the FDA in the '90s to get permission to print "heart-healthy" claims on their packaging, it ushered in a time of health advertising strongly backed by scientific evidence. As more companies jumped on the health bandwagon, the FDA's rules changed to allow "qualified health claims" - health claims with an asterisk.  Companies were then allowed to make health claims like "helps maintain a healthy heart" with little or no scientific backing.  

Photo Credits: Thoughts on Films, Times Union, Creative Mag, Weelicious, Dr Pinna, Grit

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