Take these labels with a pinch of salt.
We are surrounded every day by so many catchphrases and misleading terms that it’s hard to tell fact from fiction. Just take these eight everyday phrases for example. Even though they don’t mean what you think, each of these labels are so insidious that marketers simply have to slap them somewhere on the packaging and they can start charging more. So the next time you see these words? Beware.
1. Black Angus and Wagyu
Black Angus and/or Wagyu are widely accepted shorthand for higher quality beef, justifying the premium prices that follow. Both are breeds of cow which supposedly provide superior meat. However, that doesn’t mean they are a rare breed with lesser supply (and therefore worth more.) In fact, Black Angus cows are the most common breed of cattle in the USA.
When it comes to Wagyu, the real deal is indeed limited, owing to Japan’s lack of arable land. But, unless you personally purchased your steaks straight from that kindly old Japanese farmer, there’s a good chance you aren’t getting the exotic treat you were hoping for.
Instead, you’re more than likely getting Australian-bred Wagyu cross breed, what with Wagyu breed associations having sprung up outside Japan, and Australia being the largest supplier in the region.
As with all dishes, preparation, cooking and handling are as important as the ingredients you use. Spending more for that shiny Black Angus or Wagyu sticker doesn’t guarantee your enjoyment. In fact, the opposite is more likely to happen, with you ruining perfectly good prime cuts through inexperience.
So long as your cooking skills are on point, plain old beef will be just as enjoyable.
2. Cage-free and Free-range
Happy chickens strutting about in the open, enjoying sunshine and fresh air, contentedly pecking in the rich earth for fat juicy earthworms, living comfortable fulfilling lives until they generously give their eggs or lives for our (deep-fried) sustenance.
Isn’t that what ‘cage-free’ and ‘free-range’ means? Yeah well, maybe in a cartoon.
The reality is these terms sound much nicer than they actually are. Instead of being crammed into individual wire cages in darkened barns, ‘cage-free’ chickens (or other poultry) are kept in a massive communal pen, where they can have at least some contact with their fellow animals.
Their ‘free-range’ brethren have it even better; with stipulated time spent basking in the sun.
Both these farming practices sound more humane, true, but the animals can still face overcrowding and fights which cause illness and injuries. To minimise losses, some farmers remove their beaks and pump them full of antibiotics.
Cage-free and free-range eggs and poultry often sell for much higher, banking on the fantasy we painted at the beginning. But is there a large enough difference in the final tally? We don’t know — ask your vegan friend?
3. White Tuna
So we can’t quite take beef and chicken at face value, surely we can trust the ‘chicken of the sea’, aka tuna, right?
Well, not quite. Even though you may see ‘white tuna’ listed as an ingredient in some processed foods or menus, what you might be getting may not be tuna at all.
Instead, white tuna is an industry term that stands in for any number of white fish meat, so you’re really rolling the dice on this one. Just pray that you don’t end up with escolar, which is known for causing intestinal distress that will make you develop trust issues around fish.
Look out instead for the real deal — albacore, skipjack, yellowfin or bluefin tuna.
4. Chilean Sea Bass
If you met a Chilean Sea Bass in a dark alley, you’d scream blue murder. Or run. Possibly both. What you would not do is pay top dollar for the privilege of dining on it.
You see, the fish actually looks like the pet of those Xenomorph creatures, and originally had a name to fit: Toothfish. (Yeah try to imagine ‘Toothfish slathered in beurre blanc’ as the evening’s highlight. Still hungry?)
Like any entity with an image problem, toothfish hired a really good PR agency and underwent a branding exercise, now going by the vaguely exotic sounding ‘Chilean Sea Bass’. Restaurants also (wisely) refuse to serve the fish whole.
All this is not to say that toothfish doesn’t make for good eating. Just know that you’re paying inflated prices for a fish that, once, nobody wanted to take home to their mothers.
So around the time we decided yoga pants were acceptable streetwear, we declared war on everything processed and chemical-sounding, flocking instead towards the white-halo label ‘all-natural’. Choosing products labelled as such were believed to be a responsible, healthy, adult choice.
Here’s the bad news. ‘All-natural’ means absolutely nothing, because authorities haven’t came up with any concrete definitions of the term. But that doesn’t stop manufacturers from slapping that term on anything they think they can get away with, even though many foods marketed as ‘all-natural’ are a processed product.
‘All-natural’ food does not contain added colour, artificial flavours, or synthetic substances but can still contain ingredients that can be harmful under specific circumstances (such as if consumed in excessive amounts). They can also be high in calories, fats, sodium, or sugar.
Let me give you an example, yoghurt, which is basically spoilt dairy. If you found a puddle of congealed, sour milk in a field somewhere, would you consider it as something all-natural, and therefore good for you?
We don’t really know how the panic around genetically modified foods started, or why.
Ever since humankind realised it’s easier to prey on food that can’t run away, we’ve been cross-breeding plant species until desired traits such as sweetness became dominant. Watermelon, corn and bananas are just some examples of ‘genetically modified’ foods that we safely consume everyday.
Marketers seizing upon (unfounded) fears promoted non-GMO into a hero label, charging you higher prices to keep so-called frankenfoods out of your diet. But what we should be really worried about is the highly processed ingredients that are used in many modern foods.
What’s that you say? The high fructose corn syrup in your artisanal cheesecake is made from non-GMO corn? Oh, in that case it’s perfectly fine and healthy, we guess.
7. No Added Sugar
The next time you give in to your sweet tooth, save yourself the trouble of hunting down ‘no added sugar’ versions of your favourite desserts. Just go with the regular ones, and make a plan to work off the extra calories — if you really must.
You see, ‘no added sugar’ doesn’t mean squat when it comes to trying to eat healthier. Basically, a food labelled as such already has enough sweetness to start with (think juice), or you’re simply being fed other forms of sweeteners.
And oh, what a wonderful variety of sugar substitutes does the food industry have to play with. From high-fructose-corn-syrup to exotic sounding variants such as stevia and agave and the latest compounds known as sugar alcohols, each of these can be readily found in processed foods these days.
8. Low-Fat or Fat-Free
Ever since the end of the Victorian age, we’ve been warring against fat in all its jiggly forms. For manufacturers, introducing low-fat or fat-free foods seemed like a logical choice to give customers what they want.
The problem is, lowering fat or removing it entirely makes the resulting product kinda gross, and manufacturers are forced to compensate with food additives, most commonly sugar or sugar substitutes.
This brings you back to square one if you’re trying to eat healthier, as you’re simply swapping fat for sugar (or worse). Even if you aren’t watching your weight, switching to fat-free foods may interfere with your portion control. Since there’s no fat, you may think it’s ok to eat more.
Remember, fat-free doesn’t mean calorie free. In this case, sticking with the regular product may be more beneficial.
By Chip Chen