With Food, Simple is Always Good, Right?

LOL SpreadableButter

This is a guest blog post by Bruce Bradley

Food companies are some of the savviest trend spotters around. They literally spend Hundreds of MILLIONS of dollars tracking and following trends. In fact, in some cases, they even help create the trends. Why? It’s all in hopes of selling more and more food. But when simple foods and short ingredient lists became the latest trend, did the food industry run scared? No—they did just the opposite. Like a chameleon, they quickly adapted and turned the trend to their advantage.

Does that mean our food is really simpler? In some cases, yes. But more often than not, Big Food has merely hijacked this trend and leanwashed the truth so it can sell more food. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at a real life example to see the industry hard at work.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve loved butter since I was a kid. When used sparingly, it’s a delicious complement to so many different foods. But over the years, butter manufacturers like Land O’ Lakes lost out as consumers drifted to spreadable margarine thanks to powerful health and convenience trends. Yes, butter manufacturers tried to fight back with whipped butter, but it just didn’t have have that smooth, easy to spread texture of tub margarine.

Fast forward to 2003, Land O’ Lakes launched a new, spreadable butter that blended canola oil into butter to make it softer even when it’s cold. And when this invention got paired with the trend towards simpler, cleaner ingredient labels (unlike those on margarine), advertising like this bubbled up to exploit the trend:

With the ease and convenience of spreadability, three natural ingredients, and a tagline like “where simple goodness begins,” Land O’ Lakes spreadable butter sounds downright perfect, right? The sad truth is that while simple and natural ingredients can give the appearance of purity and goodness, you have to look deeper. In the case of Land O’ Lakes Spreadable Butter with Canola Oil, two ingredients caught my attention:

Sweet cream is a very pure, simple-sounding ingredient on a label. But in the United States, many dairy products are sourced from cows that are treated with growth hormones (like rBGH). These hormones are used to increase milk production and have been approved by the FDA (thanks to lobbying from the likes of Monsanto). But for good reason, not everyone is a fan. In fact, the United States is the only developed nation that permits its people to consume milk from cows treated with rBGH growth hormones. And a 2010 U.S. Court of Appeals decision acknowledged that milk from rBGH-treated cows varies from untreated cow’s milk in three ways that have real significance to consumers:

  1. Higher levels of  IGF-1: IGF-1 is a hormone that allows certain cells to grow. As the American Cancer Society reports, “Several studies have found that IGF-1 levels at the high end of the normal range may influence the development of certain tumors.” Although the scientific evidence is inconclusive at this time, the American Cancer Society goes on to say “more research is needed to help better address these concerns.” I don’t know about you, but I’d rather this research be done before a product is invisibly foisted into our food supply and called natural and simple. What do you think?
  2. Milk of lower nutritional quality: During certain periods of lactation, the milk produced by dairy cows treated with rBGH has decreased levels of proteins and higher fat content, indicators of lower quality.
  3. More pus in milk: Cows treated with rBGH endure many harmful side effects including mastitis, an infection of the udder. These infections lead to not only more pus in our milk, but also the increased use of antibiotics to ward off infections. Call me crazy but pus and antibiotics are two things I’m trying to cut back on in my diet.

Canola Oil is the second ingredient that caught my attention. Although billed as a natural, heart-healthy oil, the truth is the majority of canola is derived from genetically-modified rapeseed. If GMO concerns aren’t enough to make you blink, then consider this: most commercially produced canola oil is very highly processed and undergoes intensive manufacturing steps like being refined with hexane and then bleached. Does this sound simple or natural to you?

To confirm my suspicions, I emailed Land O’Lakes to see if its spreadable butter used rBGH treated milk and/or GMO canola oil. At first they dodged the question and instead blathered on and on with sentiments like this: “Land O’ Lakes, Inc. believes the environment has been increasingly better served by advances in technology.” [you can read the full text of their reply here]

Finally, after asking again, I got this reply: “The ingredients used in LAND O LAKES® Spreadable Butter with Canola Oil are not hormone or GMO free.” Huh, it’s as simple as that. While Land O’ Lakes spreadable butter is a definite improvement vs. most trans-fat laden margarines, it’s not as pure, simple, or natural as it pretends to be.

So what can we do? Be vigilant, ask questions, and dig for the truth. You see, many food companies simply cannot be trusted to disclose all the information we want to know about our food. Although their approach must change, for the time being we must assume that every time Big Food speaks, they are trying to sell us something, not provide us with the complete story.  And if you’re looking for a little extra help, check out my series All Natural…Really? where I explore foods that pretend to be natural or simple.

And how about your butter? Well if you’re looking for a replacement for your spreadable butter, here’s what I do. I buy organic butter. If I want some to be soft and spreadable, I use an old-fashioned butter keeper—you can find a wide selection of them online.

Bruce BradleyBruce Bradley is a food industry insider turned food advocate who blogs about the tricks, traps, and tools Big Food uses to get you eating more processed food.  Check out his blog and learn more about his soon-to-be released book, Fat Profits, at his website, www.brucebradley.com.


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  • http://kibblesbits.wordpress.com/ Ann

    But your BUTTER may not be GMO free or hormone free.  So you’re missing the point for headlines.  It’s not ‘leanwashing’, you’re always so freakin ridiculous on this site, filled with histrionics.  There’s serious food stuff to worry about and you’re always running around hysterical.  No wonder people eat garbage, because people like you make it look like eating is a horrible thing.

    • Darryl Miglio

      Well put Ann!  This story is a horrendous headline grabber, nothing of substance in it.

  • Donnacccslp

    Why then, when I enter this product into my Fooducate app, does it come up with a higher (C+ vs. C) grade as the organic butter I have in my refrigerator?

    • Donnacccslp

      Is there no way to delete a comment here?

  • Donnacccslp

    Why then, when I enter this product into the Fooducate app, does it come up with a higher grade (C+ vs. C) than the organic butter I have in my refrigerator?

    • http://www.fooducate.com/blog Fooducate

      Mostly because the app doesn’t know to ask manufacturers about GMO and processing. It’s an algorithm that relies on the info in the nutrition label and ingredient list. But there is definitely room for improvement…

      • You CAN Fool All the People

        Fooducate algorithm is made-up nonsense amplifying the stupidity of a library of opinionated misinformation. Why not just make up some bogus scoring for GMO and processing too? Just arrive quickly and magically at some hippie dippy score. That will satisfy most foodies. They aren’t grounded enough in nutrition science to detect the current fooducate scam, so take it to the next level.

      • TruthReplyingToBS

         Mostly because the creator of the app doesn’t know jack shit about nutrition and is only making up subjective nonsense ratings for popular foods. It’s an algorithm that relies on complete bullshit and the utter ignorance of users. But there is definitely no room for intelligent questions about the random workings of the bogus fooducate app. Have a nice day!

    • http://www.brucebradley.com Bruce Bradley

      Fooducate is a wonderful tool that can help us better understand what’s in our food. Unfortunately there is no way Fooducate can uncover all the GMOs and hormones are in every product. Why? Manufacturers don’t have to share that information and it can take days or even weeks of emails to manufacturers to try to get honest answers out of them. So for now, use tools like Fooducate to give yourself a solid base of knowledge, knowing that there are still some questions you made need to ask. Also, if you feel passionate that knowing what’s in your food shouldn’t be so complicated, join movements like Just Label It (http://justlabelit.org/) which is requesting that the FDA require labeling of genetically engineered foods.

      • Donnacccslp

        I agree, but when we have the information, it should be loaded into the program to make it a more useful tool.  And I also agree with the Just Label It movement and have joined.

  • Lee777

    If it is organic butter, it has no hormones or gmo’s. That is why organic is important.

    • Donnacccslp

      That was my point…that information isn’t reflected in the score, and it seems like it would be easy to include.

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  • Jim

    Rapeseed may be GMO, but the oil extracted from it is the same either way. And your descriptions of its purification are ridiculous. I’d prefer that it was purified.

  • http://www.aboutpartyplatters.com/ Kathy Parr

    Sad to contemplate about the United  States permitting its people to consume milk from cows that are of low quality, not mentioning the pus that is on the milk which contains dead white blood cells and bacterias.

    • vroomsvr

      The milk is pasteurized, it’s safe to drink.

  • aemish

    Dang! I’ve been buying this butter for years because it’s easier than having to leave the real stuff out on the counter to soften first :(