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:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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 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.