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

  • 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!!
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