blueberries-2I know you’ve seen it.

You hit the frozen foods section at the grocery store, and you pass the waffles. You’re thinking “Man, I could eat these for a quick breakfast in the morning.” You skim the freezer, and it catches your eye.

“Blueberry Waffles — Made With REAL BLUEBERRIES!”

I don’t know about you, but the first thing that comes to my mind is, “Well, what kinda corny claim is that? It’s food, ain’t it? If it’s not blueberries, then what is it?” The second thing that comes to my mind is, “What kind of state is food in if you have to claim your food is made with real food to sell it?”

Interesting – and yet, confusing – issue.

Take this article from Alternet about some of the scariest processed foods out there right now. (Be advised – I’ve got several posts coming up about this single article.) You don’t have to feel compelled to read it, because the good stuff is quoted below:

Frozen waffles are fairly non-nutritious. Indeed, the only real way to get any sort of vitamins in your waffles each morning is to buy blueberry waffles that contain….

But, hang on! It turns out those aren’t blueberries at all! They’re more like…well, just what are they? An apt description would be “purple globs of sugary goo,” but they’re actually called “artificially flavored blueberry bits.” Their ingredients include sugar, dextrose, soybean oil, soy protein, salt, citric acid, cellulose gum, artificial flavor, malic acid, Red 40 Lake, Blue 2 Lake and…that’s it. Notice anything missing? Oh yeah: blueberries!

For a long time, companies such as Aunt Jemima parent Pinnacle Foods were able to get away with implying that these little unfruity lumps were actual blueberries, as the box for Aunt Jemima’s blueberry waffles had pictures of actual blueberries strewn across it. But the threat of a lawsuit from Center for Science in the Public Interest made Pinnacle decide to tell people that their waffles didn’t contain any actual blueberries.

What makes the development of fake blueberries so exciting is the number of possibilities it opens up for other fake fruits. Picture artificial strawberry strips, made mostly of bacon and high-fructose corn syrup. Or perhaps artificial melon mounds made of solidified vegetable oil and dextrose monohydrate. Or the coup de grace, artificial artificial blueberry bits, made with NutraSweet and artificial soy protein. Not one natural ingredient, baby!

The interesting thing about this is that I was asking myself, “What kind of state is food in if you have to claim your food is made with real food to sell it?” as if to question why the only claim a food would have to make is that it contains real food.

Alas, that is the issue. When we talk about the food industry, we talk about an industry that got the green light to “create” food instead of “cook” food back in 1973. What happened?

The 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act imposed strict rules requiring that the word “imitation” appear on any food product that was, well, an imitation … [And] the food industry [argued over the word], strenuously for decades, and in 1973 it finally succeeded in getting the imitation rule tossed out, a little-notice but momentous step that helped speed America down the path of nutritionism.

… The American Heart Association, eager to get Americans off saturated fats and onto vegetable oils (including hydrogenated vegetable oils), was actively encouraging the food industry to “modify” various foods to get the saturated fats and cholesterol out of them, and in the early seventies the association urged that “any existing and regulatory barriers to the marketing of such foods be removed.”

And so they were when, in 1973, the FDA (not, note, the Congress that wrote the law) simply repealed the 1938 rule concerning imitation foods. It buried the change in a set of new, seemingly consumer-friendly rules about nutrient labeling so that news of the imitation rule’s appeal did not appear until the twenty-seventh paragraph of The New York Times’ account, published under the headline F.D.A. PROPOSES SWEEPING CHANGE IN FOOD LABELING: NEW RULES DESIGNED TO GIVE CONSUMERS A BETTER IDEA OF NUTRITIONAL VALUE. … The revised imitation rule held that as long as an imitation product was not “nutritionally inferior” to the natural food it sought to impersonate—as long as it had the same quantities of recongized nutrients—the imitation could be marketed without using the dreaded “i” word.

845394_blueberriesFor those who skipped over that, here’s the brief understanding. Once upon a time, the food industry was forced to label any foods that weren’t foods as we know them as “imitation.” The food industry knew that labeling a food as “imitation” was pretty much a kiss of death on the shelves, when it had to sit next to some proud, prim, and proper food with real, home grown foods. So… they fought tooth-and-nail to change this policy. Once this law was repealed, this gave the food industry the green light to put whatever it wanted in food as long as it had the same amounts of identifiable nutrients as the food it was imitating.

So what happens as a result of this change in law? We get fake blueberries in waffles with boxes of real blueberries on the front, and words like “imitation blueberries” or “naturally flavored” in tiny print on the front of the box. Not real blueberries, not the nutritional value of the blueberries. Just, as Alternet put it, “purple globs of sugary goo.” Putting it mildly, a grocery store item that makes the claim of being made with “real food” does so because, looking at the other items on the shelf, the rest simply do not.

Taking a look back at my stroll in the frozen foods section… if I still probably shopped there, I think I might still ask “What kind of state is food in if you have to claim your food is made with real food to sell it?”

Just… y’know.. for different reasons.

Where have you seen that “it-should-be-obvious” kind of claim made on a box? I swear I saw a wrapper for cheese that said “Made with real cheese” on it… if you can top that, I wanna hear it!