"Everything in moderation" is usually pretty sound advice, but let's face it: Some things you should just not put in your mouth. From artificial flavors and colors to words you'd need an advanced degree in chemistry to pronounce, there are thousands of ingredients making their way into your food that are simply not, strictly speaking, food.
Bottom line: Even though you can buy these 19 foods at the grocery store doesn't mean you should. Find out how many ingredients it takes to make a fake blueberry—and see what else made our list, to find out what should stay off of yours.
Cheese that isn't cheese
Cheese faking is an art nearly as popular as cheesemaking. All kinds of brands make not-cheese, but the classic is Easy Cheese. This “pasteurized cheese snack” is full of fillers, oil, and emulsifiers. The ingredients are so un-cheeselike that lobbyers tried to force Kraft to call its cheese products “embalmed cheese”—but the government settled on “processed cheese,” according to the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cheese of the World.
Ingredients: Whey, cheddar cheese (milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes), canola oil, milk protein concentrate, whey protein concentrate, milk, contains less than 2% of sodium citrate, sodium phosphate, salt, calcium phosphate, lactic acid, sodium alginate, autolyzed yeast extract, sorbic acid as a preservative, cheese culture, enzymes, apocarotenal (color), annatto (color).
Mayonnaise that's not mayonnaise
Less of an impostor than a consumer mistake: This white spread doesn’t technically meet the official definition of “mayonnaise,” which requires at least 65% vegetable oil. What do you get instead? "Dressing," where the major players are water, soybean oil, and vinegar. Tasty? Sure. Mayo? No.
Ingredients: Water, soybean oil, vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, modified cornstarch, sugar, eggs, salt, natural flavor, mustard flour, potassium sorbate as a preservative, paprika, spice, dried garlic.
Vanilla that's not vanilla
There’s actually no vanilla (nothing than even starts with the prefix van-) on the ingredient list of Nilla Wafers. The only tribute to their namesake? “Natural and artificial flavor,” from what? The label doesn't tell us.
A chocolate chip cookie, by any other name, is a total red flag. See chocolate-chip-flavored cookies. Why is it called "flavored"? To be called chocolate, the FDA requires that a food contain cocoa butter, and these use cheaper vegetable oils as substitutes. And yes—that partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil is code for trans fat. Better bake your own.
The world’s most popular cookie is, believe it or not, vegan—which is great for animals, but a bummer for anyone expecting cream in the middle. That white stuff—creme, they call it—is a blend of canola oil, artificial flavors, sugar, and other suspect players. And sadly, the very last ingredient is chocolate.
Caramel Syrup may look and taste like the gross approximation of caramel, but industrial caramel is way different than the kind you make at home using a sugar base. Some “caramel color” is processed with ammonia, and California even added the compound that makes it up—4-methylimidazole—to its list of known carcinogens.
Ingredients: Corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, sweetened condensed skim milk (skim milk and sugar), water, contains 2% or less of: disodium phosphate, sodium citrate, salt, artificial flavor, caramel color, xanthan gum, artificial color (yellow 6, yellow 5).
Whipped cream that's not whipped cream
When you see this fluffy stuff you can't help but wonder (sometimes before you eat it, but more often after): “Wait, what is that stuff?”
Truly, imitation whipped cream is a modern marvel, though very debatably “food.” How else to explain the 14 ingredients responsible for a light-as-air texture? As the old childhood expression goes, “Pretty please, with imitation whipped topping and a cherry on top.”
Ingredients: Water, hydrogenated vegetable oil (coconut and palm kernel oils), high fructose corn syrup, skim milk, light cream, contains less than 2% of: sodium caseinate, natural and artificial flavor, xanthan and guar gums, polysorbate 60, sorbitan monostearate, beta carotene (color).
Peanut butter that's not peanut butter
Peanut-flavored sugar oil doesn’t have quite the same ring, but it’s far more accurate a name than your average peanut butter. What shouldn’t contain added sugar typically has at least two types, plus partially hydrogenated oil (code for trans fat). What should be on the ingredients list? Peanuts. Period.
Gone are the good ol’ days of ice cream. Now, we’re forced to shovel down spoonfuls of Frozen Dairy Dessert, which can’t legally be called ice cream without containing at least 10% milk fat, according to this depressing New York Times lament of ice cream lost. What Breyer’s Extra Creamy Vanilla Frozen Dairy Dessert (phew) does contain is plenty of corn syrup, gums, and whey.
Eggs are one ingredient. But substituting them takes 20. Thankfully, eggs top the ingredient list, but it goes downhill from there: the very next ingredient is a proprietary blend of “natural flavor” to conjure up egginess.
Ingredients: Egg whites (99%), less than 1% of the following: natural flavor, color (includes beta carotene), spices, salt, onion powder, vegetable gums (xanthan gum, guar gum). Vitamins and minerals: calcium (sulfate), iron (ferric phosphate), vitamin E (alpha tocopherol acetate), zinc (sulfate), calcium pantothenate, vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B1 (thiamine mononitrate), vitamin B6 (pyridoxine hydrochloride), vitamin B12, folic acid, vitamin D3, biotin.
Butter that's not butter
Serve this on your popcorn and you’ll have people believing it’s not butter in no time. "Butter" spray is as artificial as it gets.
Ingredients: Water, soybean oil, salt, sweet cream buttermilk, xanthan gum, soy lecithin, polysorbate 60, lactic acid, (potassium sorbate, calcium disodium EDTA) used to protect quality, natural and artificial flavor, vitamin A palmitate, beta carotene (color).
Potatoes that aren't potatoes
Meet the mashed-potato-in-a-box, whose first ingredient is, thankfully, potatoes. (Dehydrated potato flakes, to be exact.) But they also come with preservatives, emulsifiers, flavorings, and even trans fat. At that point, good luck trying to convince anyone of potato-realness.
Ingredients: Potato flakes (sodium bisulfite, BHA, and citric acid added to protect color and flavor), contains 2% or less of: Monoglycerides, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, natural flavor, sodium acid pyrophosphate, butteroil.
Chocolate milk that's not chocolate milk
Take a closer look: That’s chocolate drink in your hand, not chocolate milk. Yoo-hoo doesn’t actually contain any liquid milk, but it does come with a dose of partially hydrogenated soybean oil (hello, trans fat!). We dare you to get even halfway down the ingredient list before shedding a chocolate-flavored tear.
Here’s what’s inside each bottle of Sunny D: high fructose corn syrup, and less than 2% of concentrated orange, tangerine, apple, lime, and grapefruit juice. Fruit concentrates are basically syrup, usually added to drinks and foods as additional sweeteners.
Ingredients: Water, high fructose corn syrup, and 2% or less of each of the following: concentrated juices (orange, tangerine, apple, lime, grapefruit). Citric acid, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), beta-carotene, thiamin hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), natural flavors, food starch-modified, canola oil, cellulose gum, xanthan gum, sodium hexametaphosphate, sodium benzoate to protect flavor, Yellow #5, Yellow #6.
Maple syrup that's not maple syrup
Check out the syrup in your pantry before you pour it on your stack of pancakes: Chances are good you won’t find anything close to resembling maple syrup, but you’ll find plenty of corn syrup (two types!) and artificial flavorings. Here, treat your pancakes to another squeeze of sodium hexametaphosphate!
Ingredients: Corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, water, cellulose gum, caramel color, salt, sodium benzoate and sorbic acid (preservatives), artificial and natural flavors, sodium hexametaphosphate.
Blueberries that aren't blueberries
What goes best with fake maple syrup? Fraudulent pancakes, of course. Read the tiny print that says “with imitation blueberries”, and you’ll be dying to hear how to fake a fruit. Here’s the secret: take some dextrose, fractionated palm kernel oil, flour, citric acid, cellulose gum, maltodextrin, artificial flavors, two types of blue, one part red, and you’re set.
Ever wonder what’s in bacon bits? Not bacon. Bac’n Pieces™ (aka fakin’ bacon) has 12 ingredients, lots of unpronounceables, and no hint of the sizzly stuff.
Ingredients: Textured soy flour, canola oil, salt, caramel color, maltodextrin, natural and artificial flavor, lactic acid, yeast extract, disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate (flavor enhancers), and FD&C Red 40.
Lemonade that isn't lemonade
Even if life doesn’t give you lemons, you can still make lemonade. Their lemonade drink mix ingredient list mentions nary a lemon, but plenty else! Because nothing captures the color of summer quite like Yellow #5.
Ingredients: Sugar, fructose, citric acid, contains less than 2% of maltodextrin, natural flavor, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium citrate, magnesium oxide, calcium fumarate, soy lecithin, artificial color, yellow 5 lake, tocopherol (preserves freshness). Contains soy.
Tea that's not tea
Tea=tea+water. It's the easiest recipe on earth, yet companies so often seem to lose sight of what they're brewing. See SoBe, a PepsiCo company, that manages to cram 11 ingredients and no less than five weird extracts into their green tea. All in all, that's 21 grams of sugar and zero green tea—in our book, an extract does not a green tea make.