9 Hidden Facts the Food Industry Doesn't Want You to Know

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Man with basket shopping in supermarket, looking at items on shelf
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What do you look for when choosing food products? Do you think all the information you’re looking for can be found on the food label? While focusing on the grams of protein, carbs or sugar and sodium will help in our quest to stay healthy and slim, there are other issues and food-industry secrets of which you may be unaware. Read on to learn more about nine hidden facts the food industry doesn’t want you to know. Hint: They’re not all on the label.

1. Only a Handful of Big Companies Own Your Food

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With hundreds of different products flooding the supermarket aisles, you may think you have a wide choice. But the truth is that you are just choosing among products probably made by the same parent company -- maybe even in the same factory. According to a report on food monopolies by Food & Water Watch, Kellogg Co., General Mills, PepsiCo and Post Foods control almost 80 percent of cereal sales, making it hard for you and me to find a box of cereal that isn’t owned by one of the big players in the food-manufacturing industry. Buying from independent and locally owned businesses helps keep money closer to the community. And what about quality? According to Michigan State University professor and food-system expert Philip Howard, as stated via email for Forbes, “It’s very common that when an organic food brand is acquired, that the new parent corporation reduces its commitment to organic ingredients and seeks out cheaper substitutes.”

Related: 14 Protein-Packed Breakfasts

2. Sugar May Cause Dependency

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Today, more than three out of every four food items available in supermarkets in the United States contain added sugar. Why do food companies add excess sugar to processed foods? As stated for The Atlantic by Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of pediatrics at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, “In the (brain’s) reward center, sugar stimulates the neurotransmitter dopamine, and dopamine drives reward. But dopamine also down-regulates its own receptor (which generates the reward signal). This means the next time around, you’re going to need more sugar to generate more dopamine to generate less reward, and so on, until you’re consuming a whole lot of sugar and getting almost nothing for it.” Bluntly explained, food companies know that when they add sugar, you are going to buy more. And when you buy more, they increase their profits, keeping their shareholders happy. To avoid added sugar, check the label for ingredients ending in “ose” (glucose, sucrose, dextrose) because these are all forms of sugar.

Related: 15 Reasons to Kick Sugar

3. Food-Label Health Claims Can Be Deceptive

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How many times have you chosen one product over another because the package reads “natural” or “whole grain”? It should be healthier, right? While a loaf of bread or crackers may be whole wheat, the overall benefit may be less if it’s also loaded with salt, sugar or trans fats. According to New York University professor of nutrition Marion Nestle as stated for U.S. News, these claims are calorie distracters. “They make people forget about the calories,” she says. Don’t be misled by pretty pictures of whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Read the labels carefully. If you’re concerned about the sodium, trans fat or sugar content, make sure to read the nutrition-facts panel. Also, because ingredients are listed in order of quantity, a good trick is to make sure the first ingredient on the list is actually whole wheat or whatever ingredient the product is advertising as their selling point.

Related: What Do the Labels Organic, All-Natural, Non-GMO and Fair-Trade Really Mean?

4. Big-Box Retailers Are More Harmful Than You Think

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Grocery conglomerates are the biggest buyers and sellers of grocery products, and as such, they have an enormous impact on our economy and our communities. According to Progressive Grocer, in 2011, chain supermarkets were responsible for 95 percent of total sales. Studies have shown that many big-box and national chain stores actually pay employees less in wages and benefits. On the other hand, according to the Indie Impact Studies Series by Civic Economics, which compares the impact independently owned business have on the economy to that of larger, chain businesses, found that independents provide substantially greater benefits to their local economies, creating better places to live. Chain stores and restaurants extract locally generated revenues from the community with each bank transaction, independents actually create a virtuous cycle of local spending. The more money that stays within the community means more jobs, more investment in commercial and residential districts, extra tax revenues for local governments and enhanced support for local nonprofits. Take the power back by shopping at locally owned stores and farmer’s markets.

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5. Fat-Free and Low-Fat Might Be Less Healthy

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When a product is labeled “fat-free” or “low-fat,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s healthier. When food companies create a reduced-fat version of certain foods, they typically add in extra sugar or sodium to please palates, so make sure you peruse the nutrition-facts label before hitting the register. Also, healthy fats can help keep us from feeling hungry, and they’ve been shown to improve risk factors for heart disease. Healthy fats also improve our body’s blood sugar levels and the absorption of some nutrients. Plus, they just taste better. To eat a healthier diet, buy natural versions of food with no added sugar and with at least some healthy fats.

Related: The Pros and Cons of 16 Different Cooking Fats and Oils

6. Some Popular Food Companies Learned Marketing Strategy as Big Tobacco

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If you think food companies are like well-oiled propaganda machines, you’re probably right. After all, they learned from the best. Just seven years ago, the Altria Group (the company once known as Philip Morris) still owned Kraft Foods. And they are using many of the same tactics, such as lobbying politicians and sponsoring favorable research to establish an image of their products as nutritious. In order to make informed decisions about the food you choose to eat, you need to be aware that we are selecting our diets in a marketing environment full of confusing nutritional advice. Take responsibility for your own food choices by educating yourself on the food and the companies you’re buying from.

Related: Sign Up to Receive the FREE LIVESTRONG.COM Weekly Health and Fitness Newsletter

7. The Real Impact of Pesticide Use Is Too High

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Every year, approximately 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides are used in the United States for agriculture. Due to the imprecise nature of application on high-volume crops, an estimated 99.9 percent of these pesticides are also introduced into the environment. Daniel Walton, a graduate of the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, explains, “Producers have to cover a huge area with pesticides to ensure that every surface of every plant is protected, but only a tiny amount of the chemical is needed to kill any given insect. The rest of the pesticide then gets leached into the environment or is left as residues on food.” Some of the public health concerns include acute poisonings and illnesses, cancer and other chronic neurological, respiratory, reproductive and cognitive effects. And what about the environmental cost? Pesticides destroy beneficial natural predators and parasites in both natural and agricultural ecosystems, causing major outbreaks of secondary pests.

Related: 9 Easy Food Swaps to Avoid GMOs in Your Pantry

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According to Open Secrets Center for Responsive Politics, individuals and political action committees associated with the agribusiness sector contributed well over $90 million at a federal level in the 2012 election cycle. On the lobbying front, the industry spent close to $138 million that same year, with the agriculture and food-processing industries among the greatest contributors. Coincidentally, these two industries have increased their lobbying expenditures in the past two years as Congress has considered new food-safety regulations and disclosure requirements in labeling that would affect their products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) did recently make a step in the right direction, however, by awarding more than $52 million in support of the growing organic industry and local and regional food systems through five of its grant programs. Additionally, first lady Michelle Obama has launched the Let’s Move campaign, encouraging healthier eating habits and reduced obesity rates in children.

Related: 14 Foods to Help You Get Lean

9. Food Companies Market Junk Food to Kids

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A study published in Pediatrics: Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics found that children preferred the taste of foods (including snack foods) more often when the packaging included a fun cartoon character. The worst part about all of this is that the influence on taste preferences is stronger for energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods. Policies and efforts are beginning to counter this. The USDA recently released the Smart Snacks in School nutrition standards, which sets rules on limiting calories, fat, sugar and sodium and to ban junk foods in school vending machines, stores and lunchrooms. Additionally, the World Health Organization has called on governments to reduce junk-food marketing to kids, and, as a result, 11 of the biggest companies have committed to tighten the reigns on this issue by 2016.

Related: Surprising Dos and Don’ts of Getting Your Kids to Eat Healthy

What Do YOU Think?

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Were you aware of all these issues? Was any of this a surprise to you -- why or why not? How much do ethics impact your food-purchasing decisions? What else can or should we all do? Share your thoughts with the community by leaving a comment below.

Related: 15 Toughest Do-Anywhere Workout Moves

FDA Passes Sweet New Sugar Law Aimed to Help Consumers

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What do you look for when choosing food products? Do you think all the information you’re looking for can be found on the food label? While focusing on the grams of protein, carbs or sugar and sodium will help in our quest to stay healthy and slim, there are other issues and food-industry secrets of which you may be unaware. Read on to learn more about nine hidden facts the food industry doesn’t want you to know. Hint: They’re not all on the label.


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