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

  • T.J.

    I make no-flour cakes. Even better for you.

  • Harini

    You read my mind Vani! I have been beating myself over this for the past couple of weeks. My son’s 5th birthday is coming up and I might need three cakes. One for his school, one for his party at home with some close friends and one at pump-it-up. And he is really looking forward for a cake with cars theme. I’m not much of a cake decorator though I can make a basic cake with basic ingredients at home. And the thought of having a cake from outside with all that red dye is making me feel so guilty. But I don’t want to disappoint my son and ruin his cake wish. I was looking for any local cake moms who can make this for me with natural ingredients but haven’t found any so far. Is there any good web site that lists such local full-time or part-time bakers?

    • Holly

      Could you do a simple racetrack on top of the cake with different color frosting and then decorate it with small, clean cars toys? I don’t know what you would do for a black track, but for a pavement or sand colored track, you could sprinkle turbinado sugar on the frosting to look like the track.

    • I’d just try the yellow pages or google search for local bakeries. Also look into wedding cake bakers – many of these folks will do one off birthday cakes. One thing I thought of for the race track is black licorice – Newman’s own or Panda have some that would be perfect. You could also use crushed cacao nibs too. Good Luck Harini!

    • Danyelle

      What about chocolate ganache for a track and some new car toys to race on the track? We did something similar one year for horses!

  • linda

    It is really not hard to bake your own cakes. You can even find fun cake pans in kid appealing shapes. I have to second the nomination for Whole Foods market. Their cakes taste like real food. They do cost a lot though. For a big party you could buy a couple of boxed mixes from Whole Foods and do a sheet cake with whipped cream and fruit on top. Whole Foods has strict rules about what they can sell. Go to their website to see their no no list. It is long.
    I have even done beautiful vegan birthday cakes using chocolate couscous and whipped silken tofu. So decadent. Had nonvegans begging for recipe.

  • DH has a bad habit of picking up something from the bakery at Fresh Market when I ask him to pick up milk or something. It never fails that the item is prettier than it tastes. It’s either stale (even in date) or just doesn’t taste very good. Like the chocolate cupcakes – the label says chocolate but I don’t taste it.

    The other store-bought cakes taste too sweet. And it used to be that the icing on HT cakes came in 5 gallon buckets. Tasty! (not.)

    Love your blog! I just figured out that you are nearby. Off to check out Food Babe.

  • Oh, and I’ve rarely been impressed with the bakery items from Trader Joe’s, either. Everything tastes stale when you get accustomed to fresh ;)

    • Yeah the TJ’s baked goods are pretty processed… although I’ve never tried them. If you live in the area – check out Earth Fare’s local cakes, they are fabulous. Also Sunflower bakery uses organic flours, good ingredients and will keep the dyes off of your cakes.

  • linda

    Harini, that is a tough one! Perhaps you could use natural fruit roll ups to cut into the cars shapes? Maybe newman’s o’s for tires? I could see this looking really bad though. You could get a car shaped pan from Michaels and lay some inedible Cars toys and thing on top. You could fashion a sheet cake into a road with crushed cookies and have the licensed paraphernalia situated on top.

  • Bevin

    Find a home based baker that you can trust. A lot of home based bakers have their kitchens inspected by the department of agricultural. They cannot legally sell anything that has to be refrigerated like carrot cake, red velvet cake, basically anything that has cream cheese icing or fillings that have to be refrigerated. I make cakes for people and use only unbleached flour that is non-GMO, sugar, butter, eggs (that will soon only come from my free range hens), whole milk and natural flavorings. My buttercream is made with powdered sugar, butter, natural coloring if colored decorations are wanted and water. I grow chemical free cut flowers that are used for decorations, silk flowers from craft stores or use chlidrens’ toys for themed cakes. There are lots of options for decorations. I bet if you ask around you will find someone in your area that bakes cakes in their home that would be willing to work with you about ingredients and decorations.

  • Deb

    My mom and Grandma always made birthday cakes from scratch so I always have too, even before I cared about eating real food. My kids are still young enough that they don’t care what their birthday cakes look like, but I do wonder what I’ll do once they start asking for things like a Mater or hotwheels shaped cake.

  • Isn’t it amazing. I make my own cakes and frosting so I don’t have to worry about what is in it. However, it is sad to think that some people think they are purchasing a real cake when it is in fact full of chemicals and lord knows what else.

  • GREAT post! I have become obsessed anymore with reading labels. There isn’t much you’ll find me purchasing at the grocery store any longer.

  • Julie

    Thank you for this! Now I can tell the people at work what’s really in that “delicious” cake that I pass on every time. Growing up with home baked goods was a gift my mother gave me and one I’m passing on to my son.

  • jessica b

    vani! i love your article! lisa has created a fabulous resource for the world to use in eating real food. i make everything my family eats and i am proud that my family eats healthy. cooking does take time but the time spent is well worth your family’s health! i wish there was a store you could walk in and pick up anything off the shelf and the product would be safe to consume. sadly this is not the case even in stores like trader joe’s, whole foods, and sprouts. sadly knowing what is real food is very frustrating but with advocates like you ladies the word is spread. thank you for all you! :)

  • Dorothy

    I have known about this for a while now. The sad thing is (at least in my DD school district) that when we had my daughter’s “un-birthday” (are any other celebration) at her school, I was REQUIRED to purchased the cupcakes from the store. Do you know if a place (or places) that sells cakes that do not have these horrible ingredients?

    • Holly

      Hi Dorothy,
      You’ll notice I posted the same issue. We have to have store bought treats. I’m trying to think of a not-too-bad option!

    • JE

      if you have a whole foods near you, some of their products have very reasonable ingredients. They do not use artificial flavors or dyes. You can see ingredients online on their website.

      • Check above in this post for the ingredients in Whole Food’s cakes. They aren’t the greatest either unfortunately – margarine, egg replacer, cellulose (wood pulp!) and natural flavors… If you have an Earth Fare in your area – check that out, also try a local baker that prides themselves on good ingredients. Good Luck!

  • larissa

    Dorothy, why would they require you to purchase something from a store? that is crazy. i would probably just tell them my son had an allergy and i had to make his food (b/c yes he is sensitive to these horrible chemicals). ick :(

  • Holly

    Thanks for sharing this information. I love making my own cakes and haven’t bought a cake for any of my son’s birthdays. Unfortunately, our kids go to public school, and they are only allowed to bring store-bought treats for their class. His birthday is in two weeks, and we are trying to figure out what to share.
    I’d love to hear ideas!

    • I’d google some bakeries in your area and send them an email questionnaire using the guide on this blog…. and then pick one that uses the least additives and best ingredients. I hate that they make you buy your cakes from a store… you also could try to buy something different too – like mini pies or a cookie cake that has better ingredients… Good Luck!

    • Danyelle

      Our school system is this way too :( It is sad. I would much rather my child eat betty crocker even than the purchased ones…it is because of allergies they say but at the same time, my kids eat PB at home and go to school..it is in our home..I don’t know.

  • you 2 girls are awesome. i thank you and hundreds, thousands, millions, more will thank you!!! keep all the information coming. you both are making a change in the food world. it’s just sad that so many people trust the food sold in nice markets…having no clue what is lurking inside. we all need all the info you all put out there. bless you!!

  • We are picky about our cakes, too. In fact, my kids don’t even get a cake with colors — I get them plain white cupcakes, then we stick something fun in top (a ring or other doodad — Oriental Trading Company, FTW) For my son’s 5th birthday, he got to pick Super Mario themed cupcakes from a friend who has a baking service. I thought Arun was going to flip when I told him he was going to get cake with COLOR. Hee.

  • Our family has been trying to do more natural/organic for a couple of years now. Buying a cake has never been on our list of things to do. The funny thing is, though, that the only reason we didn’t buy cakes at the store was because mom made it a tradition for her to bake and decorate the cakes for us. Those were the good times, too!! We had all sorts of cakes-princess cakes, butterfly cakes, pooh bear cakes, football or army cakes. It was something really special.
    Now, after having done lots of research on all the weird things that go into our food, Mom has really been trying to do more healthy and natural foods. Now, we use freshly ground wheat (we buy the wheat kernels from an organic company, then grind it ourselves). The other ingredients are also natural/organic. Eggs come either from our own chickens, or from the chickens of friends; oil is also from another organic place. Quite frankly, I think the homemade “Organic” cakes that we make (that are supposed to taste nasty, but most people’s ideas) actually taste better! :)
    Thanks for sharing this post. It was very interesting to learn about some other ingredients (or, should I say, chemicals? ;)

  • Harini

    Dear Vani and the gang,

    Let me thank you all first for taking the time to share your splendid ideas. I feel better now. This is what I have in my mind:
    1. School party where I have to have store bought cake:
    -Look for a local baker and get a plain cake and frosting with no artifical ingredients. Use McQueen and mater cake toppers.
    2. On his actual birthday at home
    -Bake a chocolate cake from scratch or use naturally nora cake and frosting mix from amazon(any reviews on this one Vani?) Cake toppers to the rescue again.
    -Tips from all the most helpful parents here about creating the road for the cars.

    Now if only someone waved the magic wand and made natural and organic food the only option and that too an affordable one on this planet!! I totally agree with someone’s comment that we are in a sad state that feeding ‘natural and organic’ food to our kids is a luxury when you are tight on a budget.

  • michelle

    I loved this article. I’m reposting for a few of my friends who some how just don’t get it that homemade or even some box brand cakes are ten times better and healthier then the premade walmart/cosco/ Sam’s club over the counter stomachs turning/ hurting cakes are. And icant forget that they try to get heir kids to eat healthier and have less presrevers in their food. Ive on several occasions have told them I would love to make their kiddos cakes for them but they seem to refuse because a lot of it has to do wig the kids toys that come with. Thank you for writting this you have put I think just about everybodys thoughts on to a bloc for everyone else to read and think about.

  • Kim

    Great and scary article. It sucks that my kids have allergies (dairy, eggs, sesame, peanut and kiwi between two kids – other two are allergy free). However, it is because of their allergies that I do ALL our baking from scratch – breads, muffins, tortillas, and cakes, cup cakes etc. Yes, some of those have sugar in them, but that is for a treat. At least I know what is IN the treats that I make them.
    Now that I’ve found this blog, I’m going to try even harder to be a mama who can make great tasting, wholesome and allergen free foods (and “treats”) for my kiddos.

    Thanks to both of you and keep up the great work. If you ever want/need to know how to adapt a recipe to make it allergy free, Or want some one to experiment with an allergy free recipe, I’m your gal!

  • Lourdes

    I can make a mean “real” cake. The problem is that at the Head Start where my son goes to school, they do not allow you to bring products that are not prepared without a federal food license. I’ve actually been planning to take the food prep course, but apparently between that and the exam, from what I’ve heard, the total cost is over $500. I don’t have that. So meanwhile, the federal school system is forcing me to take fake food to the school. More evidence of the conspiracy.

    • Try to find a local bakery that can make your cakes additive free… There’s got to be at least one place that is safe…That is unless you live in a very small town…So another option is to try ordering a cake off the internet and having it shipped to you. Good Luck Lourdes!

  • Becca

    This actually excites me – not about the nasty ingredients, but the challenge to make a better birthday cake this year! Three in our family have a birthday next month and it has become a hobby of mine lately to make real food versions of “normal” foods (tortillas, bread, burger buns, etc). I thought I was doing good by just buying the natural version of a cake mix, but I want to go even further and make a rockin’ cake that is real and from scratch. All of these things taste better than the store-bought and I’m sure the cake will be great, too (though I can’t say I’ve ever really liked store cakes, anyway). Thanks ladies for all of your work!

  • Justine

    I’ve also been bought up with home made cakes like many other of your readers and have continued this myself and I couldn’t think of anything worse than buying one of those cakes!! The taste is no where near as nice either! Lets get back to the basics of good, sound eating habits!!

  • I have never bought a birthday cake in my whole life. I have always enjoyed creating beautiful healthy cakes.

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