Fake food

What are you putting in your mouth?

Atkins barsWhen I ask people if they know what they’re eating, they usually answer, “Of course I do. I eat food.”

Then I go one step further, and ask if they are sure they are eating real food.

“I couldn’t chew it, swallow it, or digest it if it weren’t food,” they reply. “Right?”


Many people exist almost totally on a diet composed primarily of fake/counterfeit foods, packaged and sold as real food.

Differences between real food and fake food can be subtle and confusing, even to the most discriminating eater. If what we eat does not meet food’s criteria — “an ability to sustain life, provide energy, and promote growth” — it’s fake, despite marketing propaganda that attempts to convince us otherwise.

As scary as it may seem, research suggests up to 90 percent of the money Americans spend on food is used to purchase fake foods. From a public health standpoint, this is terrifying, given the substantial link between fake food consumption and chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and some cancers.

The world of food has changed

Pretty fruits and vegetables

Food is defined as: Any nourishing substance eaten, drunk, or otherwise consumed into the body to sustain life, provide energy and promote growth.

More and more, “food manufacturers” are creating and selling substances masked with additives, emulsifiers, coloring agents, thickeners, binding agents, taste enhancers, odor reducers, and disinfectants. We are led to believe these products are real food.

It wasn’t always this way. Our great grandparents ate seasonal, real, whole foods — not altered in any way. With each generation, diets have grown further and further away from this model. Chemical agriculture became widespread after World War II in response to revelations of worldwide hunger and starvation. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides replaced natural and organic farming methods in the hope of increasing yield.

The 1950s saw a boom in processed foods mainly due to the invention of the supermarket. No longer did people go to the butcher for meat, the baker for bread, or the farmer for vegetables. Canned and packaged foods prevailed. We no longer had a need to shop every day. We could go to the supermarket and buy for the whole week, or better, a whole month.

A new kind of farm

Green apple

Whole fruit is real food.

Coinciding with these changes, starting in the late 1960s, agriculture began to apply technology that made old-time farming look drastically different. Officials began to debate whether regulations should be in place to protect consumers and the environment, with little initial success.

Farm animals moved indoors, as industrial operations grew at an alarming scale. Huge farm machinery using GPS to navigate mega-farm fields with ease and efficiency started applying fertilizer and pesticides (and other chemicals) with pinpoint precision. Similar changes occurred in food processing and retailing. In America, technology has replaced labor, and the resulting food system has become larger, more integrated, and more consolidated.

Ten companies now virtually control our overall food supply. These include Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Kraft, Unilever, General Mills, Nestlé, Mars, Kellogg, Procter & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson.

Three companies control more than 55 percent of all flour milling; 10 companies process more than 80 percent of all chicken; four packers process 85 percent of all beef; and five food retailers sell most groceries found in supermarkets and big box stores.

BIG FOOD now controls our food supply from farm to table. Sales of packaged foods around the world have jumped year-by-year. In some countries, climate, war, or other factors have a significant impact on production of diverse, real foods. In some regions, processed-food consumption has increased by more than 95 percent!

Fake foods

Froot loops

Fruit-flavored cereal with a half-day’s added sugar is fake food.

Packaged and processed foods constitute most fake foods. Food processing represents the transformation of raw ingredients, by physical or chemical means into food-like substances, or, of food into other forms. Also, foods with health and nutrition claims on the label are often processed. And, foods prepared in quick-service and fine-dining restaurants, cafeterias and food courts, sports arenas, coffee shops, and other locations, are mostly processed.

Fake food, in comparison to real food, also can be defined by food-engineering criteria that include mass production, high consistency from batch to batch and country to country, specialized ingredients from specialized companies, pre-frozen macronutrients, use of emulsifiers, and prolonged shelf or freezer life.

Tricks of the trade

Below is just a partial list of some of BIG FOOD’s “tricks” used to manufacture fake foods.

  • Wall of salad dressing.

    Packaged salad dressings often contain additives called stabilizers.

    Color additives – Any dye, pigment, or substance imparting color to food or drink; consists of liquids, powders, gels, and pastes.

  • Stabilizers – Additives that help preserve a food’s structure; typically used to prevent oil and water emulsions from separating in products such as salad dressing; preventing ice crystals from forming in frozen food; and preventing fruit from settling in products like jam, yogurt, and jellies.
  • Emulsifiers – Any substance that stabilizes a mixture of two or more liquids that are normally unmixable; examples include lecithin, (the main ingredient in egg yolks) and mucilage (found in mustard surrounding the seed hull).
  • Sodium phosphates – Variety of salts of sodium and phosphate used as an emulsifier in processed cheeses, thickening agents, and leavening agents for baked goods.
  • Bleaching agents – Used to disinfect and deodorize certain foods, also, used to kill some undesirable microorganisms and for sanitizing raw fruits and vegetables prior to packaging.
  • Preserving agents – Used to prevent growth of bacteria, fungi (such as yeasts), or other microorganisms, as well as slowing the oxidation of fats that cause food rancidity; includes various products as well as extreme salting, curing, fermenting, and smoking.
  • Sweetening agents – Food additives that provide a sweet taste while containing less calories. Nature may produce some sugar substitutes, but most are produced synthetically, i.e., artificial sweeteners.
  • Flavoring agents – Any agent that gives another substance flavor – causing it to become sweet, sour, tangy, etc. Many flavorants are compounds designed to imitate or enhance a natural flavor. Examples include compounds like diacetyl that smells buttery, limonene that gives an orange odor, or ethylvanillin that has a vanilla odor. There literally thousands of molecular compounds producing different flavors.
  • Added sugars – Sugars and syrups added to foods or beverages when they are processed or prepared. This does not include naturally occurring sugars such as those in milk, fruits, and vegetables. Added sugars include the following agents: anhydrous dextrose, brown sugar, confectioner’s powdered sugar, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, nectars (e.g., peach nectar, pear nectar), pancake syrup, and white granulated sugar.

Fake food and health

Hot dogs

Elevated nitrates are found mostly in cured, packaged meat; they can predispose individuals to colon cancer.

How fake foods affect health depends on several factors, including their relative importance within a person’s diet. Compared to real food, fake food has a low number of vital nutrients, like carbs, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, carotenoids, and enzyme Q10 (CoQ10 or ubiquinone) per number of total calories. This is termed a foods’ nutrient density. Also, compared to real food, fake food usually consists of large amounts of saturated fat, salt, or sugar and low fiber content per number of total calories.

Specific nutritional characteristics of fake food that predispose to deficiencies and disease include the following:

  • Low fiber content – Soluble and insoluble fiber delay the intestines’ abilities to absorb nutrients and attenuates the rise in blood glucose and fructose absorption. This results in insulin reduction and reduces liver fat accumulation.
  • Low omega-3 (ω-3) fatty acid and elevated omega-6 (ω-6) fatty acid content – ω-3s are anti-inflammatory while ω-6s are pro-inflammatory; the ideal ω-6: ω-3 fatty acid ratio should be about 1:1 instead of the current 25:1, which encourages oxidative stress and cell damage.
  • Low micronutrient (vitamins, carotenoids, phytochemical) contents – Different vitamins, carotenoids, and phytochemical are important antioxidants that help prevent cellular damage.
  • Elevated trans-fat content – Trans-fats cannot be oxidized in the body and generate oxygen radicals. The USDA in 2013 declared that trans-fats are not “generally recognized as safe,” so they should not be in our food supply.
  • Elevated branched-chain amino acids (valine, leucine, and isoleucine) content – Predispose to fatty liver disease, when consumed in excess.
  • Elevated emulsifiers – Emulsifier detergents predispose to intestinal disease or food allergies.
  • Elevated nitrates – Found mostly in cured, packaged meat; they can predispose individuals to colon cancer.
  • Elevated salt (sodium chloride) content – In many salt-sensitive individuals (15 percent of the population) elevated salt intake predisposes to hypertension and cardiac disease.
  • Elevated fructose/sucrose (added sugars) – 74 percent of all processed items in supermarkets contain added sugar, mostly high-fructose corn syrup, that predisposes to type 2 diabetes, dyslipidemia, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

In contrast to fake foods, whole, real, and unprocessed foods like grains, vegetables, fruits, and nuts, associate with reduced risks and incidence of chronic diseases. Options for reduced risk are highest when one consumes moderate (or no) quantities of animal foods, salt, and added sugar.

In next months’ column, I will discuss other aspects of consequences of consuming fake foods as well as illustrate examples of fake foods that you may not know are fake.


  • Cheung, W., et al. 2017. “A metabolomic study of biomarkers of meat and fish intake.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition; Jan. 25 pii: ajcn146639. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.116.146639. [Epub ahead of print]; PMID:28122782.
  • Cordain, L. et al. 2005. “Origins and evolution of the Western diet: Health implications for the 21st century.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition; 81(2);341.
  • Crittenden, A.N., Schnorr, S.L. 2017. “Current views on hunter-gatherer nutrition and the evolution of the human diet.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology. January; 162 Suppl 63:84-109. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.23148; PMID:28105723.
  • de Shazo, R.D. et al. 2013. “The autopsy of chicken nuggets reads “Chicken Little.” The American Journal of Medicine; 126(11);1018. [www.dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.amjmed.2013.05.005].
  • “Diacetyl chemical in artificial butter popcorn linked to alzheimers plaque build-up.” cbsnews.com  
  • Groch, J. 2007. “Convenience foods save little time, lack nutrients.” MedPage Today. [www.medpagetoday.com/PrimaryCare/DietNutrition/dh/6368]
  • “How products are made: Imitation crab meat,” madehow.com, Vol. 3
  • Ingraham, C., 2015. “Why Americans overwhelmingly prefer fake maple syrup.” The Washington Post; March 27.
  • Lagerquist, R., “Preservatives and additives,” freedomyou.com. 
  •  Lustig, R.H. 2017. “Processed food: An experiment that failed.”  JAMA Pediatrics. Jan. 23; doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.4136. [Epub ahead of print]; PMID:28114671.
  • Lustig, R.H. 2015. “Metabolic syndrome and the ‘Western Diet’: Science and politics.” In: Kiess WWM, et al., eds. Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity in Childhood and Adolescence. Vol 19. Basel, Switzerland: Karger Publishers; 136.
  • Mendonça, R.D., et al. 2016. “Ultra-processed food consumption and the incidence of hypertension in a Mediterranean cohort: The Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra Project.” American Journal of Hypertension. Dec. 7; pii: hpw137. [Epub ahead of print]; PMID: 27927627.
  • Mendonça, R.D., et al. 2016. “Ultraprocessed food consumption and risk of overweight and obesity: The University of Navarra Follow-Up (SUN) cohort study.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition; 104(5):1433-1440.
  • More, S.S., et al. 2012. “The butter flavorant, Diacetyl, exacerbates β-amyloid cytotoxicity.” Chemical Research in Toxicology; 25(10);2083.
  • Olmsted, L. 2016. “Real food/fake food: Why you don’t know what you’re eating and what you can do about it.” Algonquin Books, ISBN-10:1616204214.
  • Schlosser, E. 2001. “Fast food nation: The dark side of the all-American meal.” Houghton Mifflin.
  • Steele, E.M. 2016. “Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: Evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study.” BMJ Open
  • Stuckler, D. et al. 2012. “Manufacturing epidemics: The role of global producers in increased consumption of unhealthy commodities including processed foods, alcohol, and tobacco.” PLOS/Medicine; June 26. 





  1. Rork Kuick - 1979, 1983

    I cook like my great-grandma, and hunt/gather/grow/raise over half my calories, but I don’t think dichotomizing food into fake and real is very scientific. I think pasteurizing milk is a good public health measure for example. Adding D or folate to some foods can be useful. My great grandparents cured meats, and used pretty much salt too. I do deplore my fellow Americans’ taste preferences though — it’s hard finding breakfast cereals without sugars even though that’s so simple (but with many claims about naturalness), or pre-made or restaurant food that’s not too salty (must please the average consumer). Bottom line though: Beware the naturalistic fallacy.


  2. Rochell Dunson19 - 21

    I joined a weight loss clinic, desperate to lose weight it took me 20 years to gain. Almost their entire required diet plan consists of fake foods they sell and meat. I lost weight, but at what cost to my overall health?


  3. melissa leaym-fernandez - 94, 97, 2012

    This was a great article! I don’t mind the use of “fake food” and “real food” most people cannot tell you what is in their food, nor tell you why it is dangerous–and most at the end of the day do not care. But if more research can have user friendly language, leave the pomposity at the door and show the reality of what toxic eating habits are doing to our bodies, more folks may actually embrace life changes that allow for better, real and fun health practices.
    I find that most are in a rush, exhausted at the end of the day and/or on a super tight budget. It takes time and mental effort to create a real menu, plan for food purchases, and cook. Most people are to tired to do all the work involved in eating well. The kicker is they do not see that the way they are eating now causes the exhaustion. We need to simplify our foods and get engaged in our own wellness–without waiting for ‘the doctor’ to tell us to do it.
    Great article. Thank you!


  4. Maribeth Graybill - 1983

    I was recently diagnosed as pre-diabetic and have other health problems that make losing weight imperative for my health. My physician recommended “Good Food, Great Medicine” by Miles Hassell MD and Mia Hassell. Their argument, too, is for unprocessed foods. Although I work insane hours, I’ve stopped eating frozen dinners (which I had thought were okay because I picked low calorie options) and am cooking with lots of vegetables, as well as chicken, pork, and fish (instead of sausages)– and finally paying attention to portion size. I can say that after several months of eating ‘real food,’ the packaged stuff loses its appeal. And the lists of ingredients are terrifying.


  5. Mona K - 1995

    After watching the film, ‘Forks Over Knives’ I opened my eyes wider to the influence of the big food industry that pushes fake foods & markets to us from an early age to push protein from sources like cows & dairy that may have ill effect on our health.
    It seems we have to retrain our taste buds & mentally shift back to real food! I agree, it’s now scary to consider ingredient lists & the cocktail of junk in them.


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