50 Secrets Food Manufacturers Don’t Tell You That Could Change the Way You Eat

Eye-opening insights from company executives, marketers, and food scientists into how your food is made and what you can do to eat better.

food manufacturers mint ice creamBeth Galton for Reader's Digest

First, Some Reassuring News

1. “When we recently examined big food companies over a five-year period, we found that 99 percent of their growth was coming from lower-calorie products. That was, quite frankly, a stunning surprise. 
So they’re not just sitting around on their hands. They are moving in the right direction.” Former food-industry executive 
Hank Cardello, director of the Obesity Solutions Initiative at the Hudson Institute (a nonprofit think tank) and author of Stuffed


2. “Consumers clearly want more natural ingredients and transparency about what they’re eating, and smart manufacturers are getting that and responding. Nestlé has moved to get rid of artificial colors and flavors in its chocolate candy. Kraft is removing 
artificial dyes from some types of macaroni and cheese. And some fast-food chains are removing antibiotics from their chicken.” Hank Cardello


3. “The concept of ‘the dose makes the poison’ is very important in the realm of food, especially when it comes to natural flavors and artificial colors. All food ingredients and nutrients—even those we need to survive—have a threshold for safety. When caramel color was approved, 
nobody anticipated how much of it would be used in the food and beverage 
industry. It’s in a lot of foods you don’t expect: certain soups, pilaf, and hamburger, for example. So if everything you eat is from a box, a can, or a bag, then you may get too much and have reason for concern. But if you eat a variety of foods, you don’t have to worry.” Kantha Shelke, PhD, a food scientist 
who specializes in ingredients at Corvus Blue, a Chicago-based research firm


Some people say that if you’re not familiar with an ingredient—if you can’t pronounce it—then you shouldn’t eat it. I think that reflects an ignorance of chemistry and nutrition.


4. “Organic foods are the new kids on the block, so producers are fighting aggressively for market share. One way they can increase sales is by convincing you that all chemicals are bad, GMOs are bad, pesticides are bad—and some of that has no basis in science or fact. That makes it very 
confusing for consumers.” Bruce Chassy, PHD, a food safety 
and nutrition scientist and a 
professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


5. “Some people say that if you’re not familiar with an ingredient—if you can’t pronounce it—then you shouldn’t eat it. I think that reflects an ignorance of chemistry and nutrition. Take riboflavin, cobalamin, and pyridoxamine. They’re big words and sound like things you don’t want in your food, but they are actually all forms of vitamin B, and skipping them can be detrimental to your health. 
Instead of being scared of ingredients you don’t know, educate yourself.” Kantha Shelke, PHD


6. “It drives me crazy when people think all food marketers are just trying to pull one over on them. For every brand I’ve worked on, consumer research has been the cornerstone of everything. New products always start with solving a problem for consumers. It doesn’t start with 
solving our business need and then shoving it down consumers’ throats.” Suzanne Ginestro, chief marketing officer at Bolthouse Farms who previously worked at Pinkberry, Red Bull, Nestlé, and Kraft

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Ingredients, Decoded

7. “People are nervous about synthetic flavors. But as more nations develop Western tastes for prepared foods, we may not have enough natural sources. Take vanilla, which naturally comes from a bean in an orchid. If everyone in India wanted a vanilla milk shake at the same time, there wouldn’t be enough. But we have discovered a way of making a vanillin from algae. It tastes, smells, and acts like regular vanilla, and your body cannot tell the difference.” ­Kantha Shelke, PhD


8. “People think crackers are healthy, but in many ways, they’re as bad for you as chips. Your typical cracker is made with refined grains and flavoring built around fat, salt, and sugar. Then preservatives are often added so the crackers can sit on the shelf for a year. Also, whole-grain crackers are rare. Ninety-nine percent of crackers out there are a treat.” Bruce Bradley, former marketing executive for General Mills
and author of Fat Profits


9. “Manufacturers can hide things under natural 
flavoring. When I started in this business and was interviewing possible partners, I was shocked at the amount of deception. Manufacturers and copackers would ask what ingredients I was using for preservation, and then they would tell me, ‘You know you can use X or Y—just call it natural flavoring on the package. No one will know.’” Jason Burke, founder of the New Primal, a grass-fed beef jerky company


10. “The red color in many foods comes from crushed insects. If you see carmine or cochineal extract in an ingredients list, the product contains a little powdered bug. But aside from being an 
allergen for a small number of people, it’s considered safe. Alternatives are petroleum-derived chemicals Red 
No. 40 and No. 3, which some studies have linked to such health problems as 
hyperactivity in children and cancer in animals. I’d rather have the insects, to be honest.” Daniel Tapper, author of Food
 Unwrapped: Lifting the Lid on How 
Our Food Is Really Produced


Many ‘high in fiber’ products are stuffed with what is essentially fake fiber. 
It’s not as healthy as the naturally occurring fiber in whole grains and vegetables.


11. “Some producers hide sugar by giving it different names—high-fructose 
corn syrup, cane crystals, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, agave nectar, and fruit juice concentrate. If a product has a lot of sugar, some companies will intentionally use two or more different types so sugar doesn’t end up being number one on the ingredients list. The FDA has proposed a change that would require manufacturers to add up all these types of sugar and list them as added sugars.” Walter Willett, MD, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston


12. “In any food, there may be a number of unlabeled ingredients. Studies have shown that trace amounts of pesticides are routinely present in foods. Other ingredients come from the packaging. When food is in a box, for instance, tiny bits of cardboard and the chemicals used to produce the cardboard get into the food. The same with plastic. BPA [an 
industrial chemical that has been linked to health problems] is the 
biggest example.” Michael Jacobson, PHD, 
executive director of the Center for 
Science in the Public Interest


13. “Many ‘high in fiber’ products are stuffed with what is essentially fake fiber. 
It’s not as healthy as the naturally occurring fiber in whole grains and vegetables. It may even cause gas, bloating, and other stomach problems. Watch out for chicory root, maltodextrin, and polydextrose on the ingredients list.” Robert J. Davis, PhD, author of Coffee Is Good for You: From Vitamin C and Organic Foods to Low-Carb and Detox Diets, the Truth About Diet and Nutrition Claims


14. “FDA regulation does allow some insect parts [from harvesting, the manufacturing process, etc.] in your food. 
Peanut butter can have up to 30 insect parts per 100 grams. It has no effect on the healthiness, but people might want to know.” Michael Jacobson, PhD

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