When the Food and Drug Administration made a big deal about forcing Procter & Gamble to drop the word "fresh" from its orange juice, I figured it was a last battle against companies that use misleading labels. On my next trip to the grocery store, I presumed there would be nothing deceptive left.
I began by picking up a bag of Wolferman crumpets - a fancy name for English muffins. The bag called them "original." I looked close and noticed Wolferman began making them in 1888. I also noticed they now contain thiamine mononitrate and calcium propionate. I didn't know they had those back then, but if the label says they're original, they must be.I turned the corner and spotted a display of "fresh" Contadina pastas. Fettuccini, linguine, ravioli, the works. Can mass-produced grocery store pasta be fresh? A few yards away, there were jars of Ragu pasta sauce, also marked "fresh." Do these guys know someone at the FDA?
Across the aisle, Kraft had five kinds of barbecue sauce, each labeled "America's Favorite." I suppose you have to trust that it is. Those who eat other kinds, no doubt, are communists.
Nearby, I picked up a jar of Kraft parmesan cheese. It proudly announced it was "100 percent." A hundred percent parmesan or 100 percent grated? Grated, I think, which is like advertising apples as "100 percent tree-grown." Sounds great but means little.
"Light" is big these days. Half of all products insisted they were light. Or lite. And there is nothing left that has a standard dose of cholesterol or sodium. It's all low. Or reduced. Or -free. Everything is also natural. I spotted a can of naturally decaffeinated Folgers, which impressed me, until I saw that all coffees are "naturally" decaffeinated.
In cereal land, it's the war of the vitamins. Corn Pops boasts 10 essential ones, while lower forms of cereal such as Frosted Flakes have a mere eight. Of course, you only get 2 percent of some of these vitamins, but no need to put that on the box's front. It's right there in teeny print on the side.
Most frozen foods insist they have low everything: low fat, low cholesterol, low sodium. They even call themselves names like "Healthy Choice." Then I pulled out a "Healthy Choice" steak dinner and found it like a cigarette pack: It came with warnings. "The National Cholesterol Education Program does not endorse any product," said a small line on the back. Plus: "This dinner is not a remedy or cure for heart disease." My guess is I'm the first consumer to read either of those labels.
Almost every product is one of two things: either "original," implying that "new" is bad; or "new," implying that "original" is bad. Many such items are produced by the same company and sit side by side.
In the cracker aisle, I spotted another "fresh," this one on a box of mini-Saltines called "Premium Bits." They're mass-produced and sealed in wax paper like all the other crackers, but if the label says they're fresh, I suppose they must be.
A standout in the popcorn section: Newman's "Oldstyle Picture Show Popcorn." This implies it's just like what they served in the '30s. Then I looked closer. It happens to be microwave. I'll have to ask my dad if that's how they popped it during the old style picture show days.
At last, I came to the butter and margarine section, where no one wants to admit they sell butter or margarine. Instead, they sell "Spread," "Morning Blend," "Promise," and - this is an actual product - "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter." It remains unclear what it actually is.
If all this makes you wonder what you're actually buying, remember: next time you sift through the 2,000 or so products in a grocery store, be assured that no orange juice will trick you into thinking it's fresh when it's not. The FDA has made sure of that. It's on the case.
Only 1,999 products to go.