Food Babe Investigates: Supermarket Birthday Cakes

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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!

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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 Facts.org. It has been reported on Dr. Mercola.com 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!)

Vani HariVani Hari a.k.a. Food Babe is an organic living expert, food activist and writer on FoodBabe.com. 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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152 comments to Food Babe Investigates: Supermarket Birthday Cakes

  • 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! :)

  • 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.

  • 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 ;)

  • 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!

  • 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!

  • 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!!!

  • I feel sick…that is so beyond disgusting….

  • 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.

  • 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 food..it 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!!)

      http://www.modernalternativemama.com/?p=8061

      • 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!

  • 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.

  • Kristin

    Yikes, I knew to avoid propolyene glycol in personal care products, who knew I had to avoid it in baked goods. Thankfully my mom made all our birthday cakes growing up, so I feel obligated to do the same. I was planning to take a cake decorating class like she did to improve my piping skills, though now that I am trying to avoid artificial colors I am reconsidering the need. It is REALLY hard to make creative themed cakes and sugar cookies without the use of artificial food coloring. Sadly the natural dyes, are super expensive, have a short shelf life and don’t have the extensive color pallet of Wilton. Thankfully my daughter had a snowman theme, so that involved mostly white frosting. My middle girl is getting a white cat cake. Hopefully they are all this easy. Looking forward to more posts from Vani!

  • Janet L.

    You know, I am not surprised. There is nothing worse than getting those awful tasting cakes for a party. The not so pretty cake you make at home taste always taste great.

  • Julie

    Thank You for this! I’m thinking I should print it out & put it up where I teach. So many parents have their children bring in store-made cupcakes for their birthdays. The frosting stains their faces for hours. What does that tell you?
    I am all for good, clean home baking (and cooking). You know what goes in your food.
    I’m making homemade carrot cake for Easter.

  • danyelle

    I would like to add that baked goods do have longer ingredients bc of chemical reactions of rising, flaky, moist etc…making it at home may have a long list too but you know what they are and dont need a chemistry degree to decipher.

  • Wow! That is really all I can say. I just discovered propylene glycol due to helping a coworkers find ways to deal with her exzema. I just can not believe that something that is in deodorant and anti freeze is in cakes. Especially at Costco where they make everything in their bakery. Or at least that is the vibe they give off with their big kitchen.

  • Thank you for Lisa’s post. Very good article. I have stopped buying cakes a few years back because my 12 year old daughter loves to make the cakes. Can you tell us how to make safe food coloring?

  • Laura

    We got our cake for my sons first birthday from Whole Foods (Harry’s Farmer’s Market) this is the ingredient list for the yellow cake and the chocolate cake, I checked them with your list, what do you think of these ingredients?
    (from their website)
    Yellow Cake
    Ingredients: Evaporated Cane Juice, Eggs, Margarine ((Natural Oil Blend (soybean, palm fruit, canola and olive oils), filtered water, pure salt, natural flavor (derived from corn), soy lecithin, lactic acid (non-dairy, derived from sugar beets), colored with annatto extract)), Rice Flour, Tapioca Starch, Potato Starch, Applesauce, Vanilla Extract, Egg Replacer ((Potato starch, Tapioca Flour, Leavening (Calcium Lactate(non dairy derived), Calcium Carbonate, Citric Acid), Sodium Carboxymethylcellulose, Methylcellulose)), Baking Powder (Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Sodium Bicarbonate, Cornstarch, Monocalcium Phosphate), Xanthan gum, Salt.

    Chocolate Cake
    Ingredients: Evaporated Cane Juice, Eggs, Margarine ((Natural Oil Blend (soybean, palm fruit, canola and olive oils), filtered water, pure salt, natural flavor (derived from corn), soy lecithin, lactic acid (non-dairy, derived from sugar beets), colored with annatto extract)), Cocoa, Rice Flour, Applesauce, Tapioca Starch, Potato Starch, Vanilla Extract, Baking Powder (Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Sodium Bicarbonate, Cornstarch, Monocalcium Phosphate), Egg Replacer ((Potato starch, Tapioca Flour, Leavening (Calcium Lactate(non dairy derived), Calcium Carbonate, Citric Acid), Sodium Carboxymethylcellulose<—-what is this?! , Methylcellulose)), Xanthan Gum, Salt.

    thanks! hoping for a reply!

    • danyelle

      Look up CBS 60 minutes sure on natural and artificial flavors…..what is egg replacer and why are they using margarine and lecithin….

    • Whole Food’s cakes are obviously a step above the cakes mentioned in this post – but I still feel like they are very processed especially since they use margarine vs. an unrefined oil or butter, egg replacer vs. real eggs and other ingredients like “natural flavor.” The cellulose is a filler ingredient made from wood pulp. It’s in all sorts of stuff and it’s a cheaper way to bulk out a product vs. using real food ingredients. I’ve noticed Earth Fare cakes being a step above Whole Food’s – if you have one in your area.

      To learn more about natural flavor – check out this post from my blog – http://foodbabe.com/2011/12/01/chemical-warfare-with-natural-flavor/

  • [...] read a great blog post over on 100 Days of Real Food today. If you don’t read that blog you are missing out! Thanks to  Food Babe, (I’m not [...]

  • JE

    First, I love this blog and this guest post is great – I’d have though Fresh Market would be “better” than Teeter. Wow.

    I have found that Whole Foods has some cakes which are a bit more palatable when you read ingredients. For example, from their website, here are the ingredients for their carrot cake:
    Carrot Cake Ingredients: Carrots, evaporated cane juice, canola oil, eggs, rice flour, potato starch, raisins, walnuts, natural vanilla flavor, salt, baking soda, xanthan gum, cinnamon.

    Whole Foods also states: “We never allow artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives or trans fats in any of the products we sell.”

    While baking at home is best, sometimes I just do not have time. Up north, I found local, mom and pop bakeries and used them – they tend to bake like we do at home – but down in NC I haven’t found many of this kind of bakery. Whole Foods bakery makes for a reasonable alternative for my family. Often, they bake on-premises or nearby. When it comes to foods that are prepared, I tend to buy at Whole Foods (although I still read ingredients, as some of the choices made are not what I include in our family’s diet). I also feel like special birthday cakes are a only a ‘few times a year’. Still, perhaps WF is also a reasonable option for others who live near a WF?

    • Choosing to buy a WF’s cake isn’t the worst option. Just beware not all WF’s cakes are created equal. The one you posted doesn’t look that bad, some others have posted some with margarine, egg replacer and cellulose (wood pulp!)….

  • Allie

    Awesome post, ladies! I’m slowly but surely converting my hubby to a real-food diet, and it’s taking LOTS of blog posts like yours. THANK YOU for all you do for us!!
    <

  • Great post! I’ve started making cakes for our birthdays for this very reason. I always seem to be staying up late the night before to get it done, but it’s so worth it to avoid all those chemicals! The kids love them too. I’ll even use ingredients I wouldn’t typically use (white sugar for one) as my birthday compromise.

  • katy

    So where are you going to buy your cake from?

    • Ha ha! Good question…. my Mom ended up making my favorite, Carrot Cake. But if I had to choose a bakery in Charlotte – it would be the local organic carrot cake that Earth Fare carries or something from Sunflower Bakery or a special order at Luna’s Living Kitchen. Edible Art is pretty delicious too and I’ve quizzed them hard :)

  • Charles in Charlotte

    Great post, Your article points out why I bake all my own cakes from scratch. I was not aware of the propylene glycol. That’s what antifreeze is made of. I have a killer carrot cake reciepe.
    Please keep up the good work :)

  • Kelley

    We do not buy store bought cakes anymore, usually make homemade cupcakes for birthdays, but I did not realize propylene glycol was in them. I had know it was in lotions and shampoos — however recently we have been seeing it in a lot of food products. We have been looking at ingredients and have found propylene glycol in the shredded unsweetened coconut I used to buy and even in my daughters allergy medicine.

  • Erin in Arizona

    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!! I can’t tell you how much I enjoy your blog (been following for over a year now). I am so impressed with what you have done with your family as we journey towards the goal of no processed foods in mine. And let me just say, I think I may have the pickiest family ever. But you inspire me to keep trying and we are slowly making progress. I always look forward to your next update. Thank you again! : )

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