While 75% of Americans say they eat healthy, there's a boatload of evidence that this isn't the case. More than 36% of U.S. adults are obese, fewer than 20% eat enough fruit and veggies and the average American consumes about 94 grams of sugar a day — equivalent to more than eight full-sized Reese's cups.
But don't let these numbers confuse you, because the food industry has the whole "confuse you" thing down pat. With false adversing, research meddling and completely unobtainable promises, it's almost as if food intentionally bewilders so we don't ask questions and just shove our pie holes with whatever looks good.
Indeed, the food industry hustled us tirelessly all year long. Maybe it's why eating healthfully is so hard for the lot of us?
Food straight up lied in 2016
This year, the phrase "this is not normal" worked its way into America's national dialogue. While it was often used to describe political circumstances, it fits the bill in the case of food, too. Another synonym? "Nothing is real." So many food products plain pulled our legs this year. Here are three:
1. "Green" juices had more sugar than candy bars
At snacktime, when you opted for kale over Snickers, you might've thought you deserved some kind of accolade. A Good Choices trophy, perhaps?
Unfortunately, choosing a certain brand of virtuous juice would have disqualified a consumer from earning extra points. Naked's "Kale Blazer" juices were advertised as "predominantly containing high-value ingredients such as açaí berry, blueberries, kale and mango, when in fact the predominant ingredient in the product line is usually cheap, nutrient-poor apple juice," according to an October 2016 statement from a lawsuit by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
While the beverage markets itself kale-based, CSPI points out that it has more orange juice than it does kale. It's basically a bottle of Tropicana wearing a costume. Just one bottle of the sugary sipper that's masked as a health elixir contains a hefty 34 grams of sugar — seven more than a Snickers candy bar.
The takeaway here? Just because it's green and covered in photos of vegetation doesn't mean it's healthy.
2. Parmesan cheese was chock-full of wood
There's nothing quite like a dusting of Parmesan to complete the perfect pasta dish. Except when that should-be dairy-based topping is actually... wood pulp?
As Bloomberg reported back in February, certain Parmesan suppliers mislabled their products "by filling them with too much cellulose, a common anti-clumping agent made from wood pulp, or using cheaper cheddar, instead of real Romano." The horror!
While headlines incited alarm among cheese lovers, customers didn't need to fear for their health, but for the integrity of their cheese: Cellulose is a safe additive when it's used as an anti-caking agent, as it is in Parmesan. But, as Bloomberg reported, many Parmesan products contain more than the permitted 2 to 4% of cellulose. The issue, here, is that innocent parm enthusiasts often receive less cheese than they pay for, and no one likes to be scammed on cheese.
The cheese dilemma raised flags this year, four years after the FDA accused one brand of cheese for false advertising, because Bloomberg published its detailed report on store-bought Parmesan cheeses and their cellulose content.
An FDA spokeswoman told Bloomberg that she could not speak about the pending legal cases, but that the FDA takes financial fraud very seriously. Now that the Big Cheeses are watching, Parmesan virtue will be restored.
3. "Lobster" bisque might've been closer to hermit crab bisque
A Februrary investigation by Inside Edition discovered that about 35% of sampled restaurant lobster dishes contained less-costly seafood instead of, or in addition tothe upscale crustacean. In other words: Your lobster ravioli may contain no lobster at all.
Inside Edition sampled seafood dishes from 28 reastaurants in the U.S. and had labs perform DNA tests on the meat. Some "lobster bisque soup" samples from Beyoncé's beloved Red Lobster were found to contain no lobster at all, but langostino, "a less expensive seafood more closely related to hermit crab than lobster," Inside reported. Soup that only contains this kind of meat is required to be labeled as "langostino lobster bisque," the FDA told Inside Edition.
Other restaurants' dishes, including those from Nathan's in Brooklyn and Get Hooked in Florida, were found to contain a fish called whiting, which is much cheaper than lobster. Even though many of the eateries claimed to be unaware of the seafood fraud, the fishy mixup ends up ripping off its customers.
Food industry groups were busted for trying to manipulate science
2016 may go down in history as the beginning of the takedown of Big Sugar: The industry revealed itself to be entirely rotten this year. While rigging and funding "health" studies is certainly not a new practice in marketing, a few major cases this year were particularly unscrupulous. Shall we?
4. A 2016 report revealed that 50 years ago, Harvard scientists were paid by Big Sugar to say that fat — not sugar — was the enemy
A November 2016 report published in JAMA Internal Medicine revealed that the Sugar Research Foundation, a sugar industry group, sponsored a study by Harvard researchers to "refute" the possibility of sugar consumption serving as a risk for heart disease. The study, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, did not disclose the SRF's funding.
"It was a very smart thing the sugar industry did, because review papers, especially if you get them published in a very prominent journal, tend to shape the overall scientific discussion," Stanton Glantz, one of the authors of the 2016 report, told the New York Times. Many experts argue that this first study, and many to follow, succesfully convinced the collective dieting conscious that fat, not sugar, was the enemy.
5. Big Soda paid influencers to pretend that soda taxes are ineffective — they're not
While the American Heart Assoiation found that imposing a tax on the sugar content in soft drinks is a successful way to reduce the nation's soda consumption, Coca-Cola worked to make the pubic think otherwise.
Studies have linked a soda drinking habit to serious health risks, like diabetes, tooth decay and even depression. And yet, among many other efforts to derail the soda tax initiative, Coca-Cola my have enlisted several nutrition and health experts to tweet against the practice, according to Ninjas for Health, a public health advocacy group.
The move is extra shady because these experts' ties to Coke and the financial incentives they're often provided tend to be undisclosed or difficult to see. As Kyle Pfister, founder Ninjas for Health, previously told Mic, "No health professional or organization should be accepting funding from the soda industrty" because rewarding experts and having power over scientific studies can "confuse the public, obfuscate science, buy silence from health organizations, target vulnerable populations and slow public will for policy solutions to end the diabetes and obesity epidemics."
6. Cranberry juice didn't tame anyone's UTI — and it was never going to
This isn't to diss your mom, your bestie or even your misinformed doctor, but it's time you know the truth: Cranberry juice will do jack to placate the horrific discomfort of a urinary tract infection.
“Cranberry juice, especially the juice concentrates you find at the grocery store, will not treat a UTI or bladder infection,” Dr. Timothy Boone, vice dean of the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine in Houston, said in a statement. “It can offer more hydration and possibly wash bacteria from your body more effectively, but the active ingredient in cranberry is long-gone by the time it reaches your bladder.”
So, then, why have people been hoarding Ocean Spray since the beginning of time? As Boone explained, A-type proanthocyanidins, an ingredient found in cranberries, can effectively combat the bacteria that causes a UTI, but is required in an enormous concentration. A conventional glass of cranberry juice contains nowhere near enough to work against the evil pain below.
Despite the lack of evidence that cranberry juice will provide relief, a June 2016 study published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that "cranberries can be a nutritional approach to reducing symptomatic [UTIs]."
What's the deal here? Well, according to Vox, the study was funded by Ocean Spray and co-authored by Ocean Spray scientists, of course! "Not only was the food company involved in nearly every step of the process but its scientists even helped write the manuscript," Vox reported.
Food products were full of empty promises to make America healthy again
America runs on false promises, does it not? No introduction needed, let's get into it:
7. Gatorade sold organic sugar water as superior to plain sugar water
What's better for you than a sugar-laden "sports drink"? How about a sugar-laden organic sports drink? PepsiCo-owned Gatorade announced the launch of its G Organic line in August, describing it as an option "for those athletes looking for an organic hydration and fueling option that is USDA certified, while still providing the proven fueling benefits found in Gatorade Thirst Quencher."
The new product cut artifical colors (a move that's been seemingly well-recieved by consumers in recent years, but has no known health benefits) and swapped regular sugar for organic sugar. Nutritionally speaking, the G Organic and Gatorade Thirst Quencher are nearly identical:
This product teeters on the side of scammy because it plays into unsubstantiated consumer beliefs. Using terms like "organic" is a way to solicit new customers: A small study from the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University found that people believed organic products had fewer calories and were more nutritious than their non-organic counterparts. This is clearly not validated in the case of Gatorade. Even more, the study found consumers were willing to pay up to 23% more for organic items.
G Organic is not the first, and certainly won't be the last, product relying solely on this kind of sketchy marketing: 7Up with antioxidants and Vitaminwater are examples of equally pathetic ploys to draw in eager consumers.
8. Lead-laden gummy bears promised Kardashian-quality hair
Even a moderate Kardashian-Jenner fan knows that the women rely on a crew of talented professionals and awesome selfie lighting for objectively gorgeous hair.
And yet, mostly through their Instagram accounts, several of the sisters uphold that a little gummy vitamin called SugarBearHair is responsible for their pretty 'dos. Among other promises, the supplement says it will "nourish your folicles from the inside out," "grow longer, stronger hair" and stop hair breakage.
Labdoor, a California-based lab that analyzes dietary supplements, found that "the listed quantities of seven of the 11 nutrients listed on the SugarBearHair were inaccurate by 20% or more," BuzzFeed News reported. "It also found the vitamins had 'relatively high' levels of lead compared with other hair supplements tested by the lab."
Lead? The metal has never been expert-recommended for hair growth, but being overexposed to it has been associated with cognitive impairment in children, a weakend immune system and an increase in blood pressure.
9. Baseless "weightloss teas" forced money-making Instagrammers to come clean about their sponsorships
Of course, propagandizing gummy bear haircare was just one way the Kardashian-Jenner sisters made money this year. They also overflowed their followers' feeds with photogenic support for Fit Tea, "a detoxifying tea blend of certified organic herbs which are formulated to enhance your weight management program as part of a healthy diet and exercise regimen."
By now, you hopefully know that most quick-fix weight loss programs are both unsustainable and a waste of cash, and the fitness teas peddled by the Kardashians are no different.
The difference in the Kardashian tea case is how it symbolized a major a shift in the new age of social media-run sponsorship: If anything, the case highlights how consumers need help distinguishing fact from fiction.
The massive celebrity support for these teas, which are mostly not FDA approved, reached such fraudulant heights that it influenced the Federal Trade Comission to tighten up on regulating sponsored content, Bloomberg reported. Since at least March, the FTC has called upon advertisers to make sure their clients provide explicit disclosure when posting a paid advertisement. The rules aren't yet entirely clear: Some influencers may use the hashtag #sponsored, while others will choose #ad, but they are supposed to post the hashtag at the beginning of their posts so consumers are more likely to see them.
Not every consumer will care to read between the lines of a sponsorship hashtag, but hopefully with time, the marking will become more synonymous with "trust with caution."
Bonus! A scam to kick 2017 off on the wrong foot: A martini in Trump's America
Political reporter Olivia Nuzzi had the great misfortune of experiencing what a martini could look like under President-elect Donald Trump's impending regime. One could argue it's perhaps the biggest food scam of the decade. A vodka martini ordered at the bar at Trump Grill appears to have come served in a wine glass and topped with ice.
Let this serve as historical record, lest the martini be permanately altered post-inauguration. As Keith Lowerre, bar manager at New York's The Wren, previously told Mic, "A vodka martini should be shaken until it's ice cold and served in a V glass or a coupe. An olive or twist is a matter of preference, but there are absolutely no circumstances under which you'd ever drink a martini from a wine glass with ice. Period."
As 2017 rears its less-than-promising head, please toast a proper martini to the scandoulus food scams that will hopefully remain in the past. If we can't count on the food industry to quit scamming, it is at least within our rights to drown our sorrows with a proper cocktail.
Godspeed and goodnight.