Food Babe Investigates: Supermarket Birthday Cakes

Today I’d like to introduce my very first “regular contributor” on the blog…Vani Hari a.k.a the Food Babe! Vani, a fellow “real food” blogger here in Charlotte, first caught my eye when I read her blog post entitled “Don’t Believe the Hype – There’s No Euphoria from Yoforia….” She did such a great job investigating the truth behind Yoforia’s claims (FYI – Yoforia has since contacted Vani and asked her to work with them on making product improvements) that I thought everyone would welcome a monthly visit from the “Food Babe” here on this site. So in the coming months expect to find out more than you ever wanted to know about what’s lurking in processed food!


When Lisa asked me to be a guest on her blog I jumped out of my seat – thrilled at the chance to reach out to all of you – and immediately knew what I wanted to write about. Hi, my name is Vani, and I share information about organic living, healthy travel and food activism on my blog Food Babe (and on Facebook). The love of real food is just one of the many things Lisa and I have in common, and I’m excited to be here today to share some startling facts about one my favorite foods.

My birthday was last week and I had only one thing on my mind. Can you guess what it was?  Nope, it wasn’t thoughts about getting older, or what presents I wanted this year or where I wanted to go on my next vacation. All I could think about was “Where am I going to get my birthday cake from!?!”

This is a dilemma for my family and me every single time there is a birthday on the horizon. We sometimes have knock down, drag out fights about where we buy our cakes…and that’s because not everyone in my family follows the same real food principles as I do. (I’m secretly hoping they will read this post so they’ll think twice about fighting me next time around!)

Growing up we would always get our cake from the local grocery store chain “Harris Teeter.” This was our go-to cake for as long as I can remember. Then in college and in my early twenties I became a Costco member and was thrilled to be able to get such a huge decadent cake for only $14.99 on my college budget. As I became more refined in my taste for cake, I thought it would be a good idea to upgrade and shop at the Fresh Market because… well… it had to be “fresher” than Harris Teeter or Costco, right? Unfortunately, as you’ll find out this couldn’t be further from the truth.

When you look into these three different cakes from three very different places – a regular grocery store vs. a huge wholesaler warehouse store vs. a specialty market – you don’t see much difference in the ingredients. They all resemble one big science experiment…

Let’s take a look at some of the cakes at Harris Teeter. This cake says “Home-style” carrot cake… but when you you look closely at the ingredients it reveals something much different….

We know why Lisa dislikes artificial colors (that are unfortunately in all the cakes I am sharing with you here today.) But let’s talk about a new and scary ingredient you may not have heard of – propylene glycol. This petroleum based chemical food additive – that’s been approved by the FDA – is also found in products like brake fluid, acrylic paints, tile grout, primer, shoe polish, antifreeze, floor polish, tire sealant and sealant paste, according to Food It has been reported on Dr. that the following symptoms can arise after repeated small doses – throat irritation, headache, backache, and kidney problems. Furthermore, ingesting very large doses of this chemical can cause drowsiness, vomiting, respiratory failure, coma, convulsions, or can be fatal.

Yes – you have to ingest a lot of this stuff to see some of these reactions – but is saying “death by a thousand cuts?” taking it too far? I don’t know – you decide. And why is this stuff in our birthday cakes anyway?

Even the cakes that Harris Teeter gets from a famous local bakery, “Tizzerts,” are just as bad as their store brand cakes because they also contain propylene glycol.

Then you move on to Costco where the ingredient list is so long I literally had trouble keeping count – but it’s close to 80 ingredients! The majority of them are fake chemical fillers and food-like substances that are obviously not real food. (Notice the inflation – the price has gone up $3 dollars since the last time I bought one.)

And what’s so American about this “All American” chocolate cake? Gosh I didn’t know you needed this many artificial colors (6 to be exact!) to color chocolate – I thought chocolate was already brown!

The most upsetting – and most expensive – cakes were from The Fresh Market where I learned they aren’t made on premises, but instead by a bread and snack manufacturer named “Vie de France.” Again, this name fools you into thinking you are getting a higher quality or fancier product. I was impressed that The Fresh Market had a book of all the ingredients they willingly shared with me, but when I found the page labeled “bakery goods free from trans fat” (which had only a very small subset of the large amount of bakery goods in the book) I was deflated to say the least. Again, most of their cakes had propylene glycol too and lots of other preservatives.

Regardless of these ingredients being clearly labeled on packaging and readily available, I see these types of cakes at almost every celebration I encounter – baby showers, bridal showers, children’s birthday parties, schools, work celebrations, retirement parties, etc. Children’s birthdays are probably the worst offender… especially at school, since the opportunities to celebrate birthdays seem endless.

The thought of consuming artificial flavors, artificial colors, transfat, and other food like chemicals made from petroleum willingly on the day we are supposed to be celebrating our life or our children’s lives seems a little ironic, doesn’t it?

What upsets me the most is that it’s possible to make a perfectly delicious homemade cake like Lisa’s Tie Dye Cake with around 10 ingredients or to buy one that doesn’t have any of these harmful ingredients I described above.

The next time the occasion arises and it’s time to get a cake, here are 5 questions you need to ask your baker before reaching into your wallet:

  1. What ingredients do you use to make your cakes? Always ask this basic question  – you may be appalled at what you find. For instance, many cake manufactures use no real sugar at all and the whole cake is made with high fructose corn syrup.
  2. What kind of flour do you use? The answer should be an unbleached flour, and if it is organic flour, even better!
  3. Do you use any preservatives in your cake? Propolyne glycol, parabens, and polysorbate are just a few of the laundry list of potential preservatives. If there are any of these ingredients or other preservatives used – I would keep looking.
  4. Do your cakes contain any partially hydrogenated oils (trans fat)? I would specifically say “partially hydrogenated oil” because legally food manufactures can still include this ingredient and say “no trans fats” at the same time.
  5. Do you use any artificial colors in your cakes? If you find out the cake is clean, but they still use artificial colors to decorate the cakes, ask for the cake to be made without them and then consider decorating the cake with organic candies, dried fruit, chocolate sauce and/or natural food colorings yourself.

You make a decision to vote with your dollars every time you take out your wallet, whether you realize it or not. With the right information and enough conscious decision making about what we eat and how we spend our money, together we can make a change. They say you can’t have your cake and eat it too – but why not?

P.S. Check out a new REAL FOOD cake recipe I made for my Dad’s Birthday this week on my blog …(oh and I’m sorry it’s not going to be this gorgeous…this is a cake I had last year traveling in Indonesia!)

Comments have been closed on this article, which was written by Vani Hari. If you have a question or comment you can reach her at

Vani HariVani Hari a.k.a. Food Babe is an organic living expert, food activist and writer on She teaches people how to make the right purchasing decisions at the grocery store, how to live an organic lifestyle, and how to travel healthfully around the world. The success in her writing and investigative work can be seen in the way food companies react to her uncanny ability to find and expose the truth. To follow Vani, check her out on FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.

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  • Comments

    1. |

      I absolutely hate to say this but I’m just shocked! I don’t know why, I guess it’s because I am a newbie at this (once I started having kids I started to wonder what’s really in my food). Just when I think I’m getting the hang of it it’s like “BAM!!” I don’t purchase these cakes and honestly I don’t really eat much cake in general but to see all this junk… Then I wonder the average person throws a birthday party for their kid and my kid goes and eats this crap. Now I know it’s not very often but still it makes me cringe…

      Thanks Lisa and Vani…you two are becoming my most favorite blogs! :)

      • |

        Trust me – you are not alone – we’ve all been shocked at some point during this journey. Aren’t you glad you know now though?!

    2. Jennifer |

      I became a self-proclaimed “cake snob” about four years ago, but not for the reasons listed in the article. Now, it’s more for the reasons listed in the article. Several of my friends have said to me, “Oh, just get one from Sam’s/Costco! They’re just as good!” I’m here to tell you that they’re not. This article says very clearly why they’re NOT just as good.

      Now, I buy real ingredients and use them. You CAN make a cake at home with SEVEN ingredients, and it tastes amazing.

      • |

        Cake Snob?! I love it!

    3. Veronica B. |

      Great post! My daughter’s birthday is coming up and I always have liked buying the most gorgeous (expensive) cakes. I was more preoccupied with making sure the look of the cake was exactly what my daughter envisioned than about what she was actually consuming!!! I’m so ashamed! This year I’ll be making her cake and I told her we would be making it and decorating together and she was so excited. Hope she likes the results! Look forward to reading more from you Vani! Btw, you are GORGEOUS!!!

      • Veronica B. |

        I purchase from a bakery, not a store. Maybe those are not so bad? I’m still making my own this year!

        • |

          Thanks Veronica – you are so sweet. Yes, some bakery cakes are better than the supermarkets – but you’ve got to call and quiz them hard to find out! Emailing them works great too if you are shy ;)

    4. |

      My mom always made us cakes when we were growing up, even if they were out of a box. Now I make my own cakes because I don’t want the junk out of the boxes. I know there’s a long ingredient list on the box mix but even that seems better than those store cakes. And of course we’re leaving to go to a birthday party in ten minutes…we’ll see what kind of cake they have!

      • |

        I curious to find out what kinda of cake they had! Keep us posted.

    5. Joe Quinn |

      As the father of four children we’ve hosted and attended many birthday parties.

      In my opinion, the worst thing you can ever do is buy a cake or make a cake from scratch but used canned frosting.

      The best cakes are homemade from top to bottom and highly decorated or themed to match the party.

      These cakes have been treasured memories for them.

      AND I know what’s in the cake!

      • |

        Couldn’t agree more – those canned frostings are terrible! But so is cool whip!

    6. |

      GREAT article. My family buys bakery cakes, now wondering about them. Just found out the la di dah cupcake place in town uses regular box mix for the cakes!!! I usually skip box mix, kind of wish you covered that vs. from scratch. I make scratch cakes….so fun. Especially with two little girls. OOOH. Maybe I will blog that. YEAH! Tiny Red Kitchen…I will time and note cost and ingredient list to make a box cake vs same scratch cake….more later in that one!!!

      • |

        Do it! It will be interesting to see the difference.

    7. Angi F |

      Thank you so much for the post. I usually make our cakes but this post will have me NEVER buying a store bought cake ever again for any reason. We make ours from scratch too and they always taste amazing and we have come up with some great designs.

    8. danyelle |

      Oh how I love cake with buttercream frosting… I make my own on occasion but I have used coloring to make character cake but for us at the same time eating once a year for a special occasion is not that bad, but some things can be cut out…usually all of the extra things come down to price and shelf life….we as Americans have to be willing to pay for quality not quantity.

      I make cakes at home though if we want cake without all the junk. The things that bother me most are the parabens and poly propylene junk. Read the ingredients on a bottle of miralax… I did after seeing so many suggest it for bowel issues. Parabens are in lotions, shampoos, and other skin care in addition to is a known carcinogen but we ingest it and slather it on us and our children. Food and all of it are very frustrating to me. W wonder why there are so many occurrences of asthma, allergies, autoimmune disorders, autism, psychological issues…look ast what we are doing to ourselves. I feel everyone has a tolerance for a certain alot but we ne ed to cut where we can.

      • danyelle |

        I am sorry,for typos….autocorrect on swipe keyboard is difficult!

      • Allie |

        danyelle–I came across this amazing-looking recipe yesterday . . .

        “Refined-Sugar Free Vanilla Buttercream” (as in, no refined sugar, NOT sugar-free! LOL!!)

        • Danyelle |

          That looks good…must try but I worry about cooking the eggs when doing those, I can do hollandaise pretty well with eggs, lemon and butter though! Maybe buttercream will be ok too!

      • |

        It’s interesting that you mention an over the counter med that also has these terrible chemicals. I try to stay far away from those too – going for a natural alternative whenever possible. Even shopping for cold remedies at natural food stores vs. CVS can save you from ingesting tons of artificial colors, flavors and preservatives added…

        • Danyelle |

          It is frustrating! We eat well and have never had kids with bowel issues but I kept reading about Miralax and hearing about it, walked by a monstrous display at Walmart one day and had to read the ingredients. Gross. It is just all very disturbing. If I choose to eat something junky or “fake” it is one thing but I feel it is pervasive in our society and people think it is food! Like Whonu cookies…ahhhh I could on for days about it all!!LOL

        • |

          Propylene glycol is a laxative. It is the active ingredient in Miralax. It draws water into the colon in order to move things along. I think it’s a great thing for people who need laxatives for some specific medical reason (people who are hospitalized and bedridden for long periods of time or on certain pain killers, both which can cause severe constipation), but the majority of people could do away with constipation if they ate real food. But this makes it that much more confusing–why is it in cakes?? If we ate enough fruit and veggies and whole grains, almost nobody would ever need propylene glycol!

          Another comment for this article–in Texas it is now legal to sell baked goods. These 80-ingredients lists are all the more reason to buy from a home baker! I do use white flour and white sugar in most of my cakes, but can make them according to any special requests that I get. And even with white flour and sugar, at least there are very few ingredients in the cake and I know exactly what they are!

          • |

            P.S. I meant it is now legal to sell HOME-baked goods. It was never illegal to sell baked goods, that I know of ;).

          • |

            Polyethylene glycol is a laxative. Nevermind! I confused propylene glycol with polyethylene glycol, which is the laxative…

    9. Kristin |

      So interesting! A friend of mine ordered a birthday cake from the local Safeway BAKERY and was surprised when she stopped by to pick it up to find out that since there was a blizzard in Denver, the store didn’t get their delivery of birthday cakes! I wonder how much is actually made in the so-called supermarket bakeries?

      It was even frosted in Denver before it made the 6-hour trip to our city.

      • danyelle |

        A lot unfortunately!

      • |

        It was “preserved” probably longer than just that trip into the city!

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