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 This is a guest post from Vani Hari (a.k.a. The Food Babe) and New York Times Best Selling author. You can read more about her take on the food industry in her second book, Feeding You Lies!

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

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143 thoughts on “Food Babe Investigates: Supermarket Birthday Cakes”

  1. Well, it does make me feel better that others don’t buy grocery store cakes due to the ingredients! We don’t buy them since my son has multiple food allergies. I’ve had a few cake mistakes since I’ve been baking cakes at home for 3 years now, but I’m slowly learning!

    I’m not saying this is the best way to bake a cake, but with all the food allergens my son has to avoid, this is the best way I can do it right now!

  2. I know this probably goes without saying, but if you have need for sugar free cakes, make sure they use all natural sweeteners lik Xagave (Agave in a pinch, but Xagave is better for diabetics) or steevia….there are of course other alternatives, bit don’t accept chemical substitutes.

  3. While I agree that many of these ingredients are not truly necessary, I think you should try to avoid the arugment “X ingredient is also in this list of horribly toxic things, (or toxic if guzzled straight) therefore it must be a horrible thing to ever appear in food.” It makes your overall argument appear less credible.

    Things are harmful in doses present in food, or they are not. The fact that the same chemical may also be present in other products or deadly when consumed in crazy quantities is irrelevant, and takes away from your main points, which are quite valid. (i.e. Water is present in all sorts of evil things, and will kill you via Hyponatremia if consumed in excessive quantities, but nobody’s going to argue that water should never be present in food.)

  4. The power of this post made my day!

    Thank you so much my darling! Great blog.

    I built up TipsyCake with the premis scratch made cakes we are still in business 7 years later….creating custom cakes for Chicagoland and the Midwest!

  5. Thank you for this post. I look forward to trying some of the cake recipes on the blog. I knew you would have some options (and information) for my little boy’s upcoming birthday! :o)

  6. Great article. My chiropractor has a birthday cake from a supermarket made over 10 years ago in its original packaging. If stays on their shelf……it is so processed that nothing has happened to it. Crazy to think millions of people eat this stuff!!!

  7. I remember going to a party for a child (a 2-year-old I believe) when my oldest was about 5 and my youngest a baby. They had one of those HORRIBLY brightly colored cakes for the kids — and a beautiful, homemade, pineapple, heaven of a cake for the grownups. My daughter, who loves sweets, took one bite of the day-glo kids’ cake and decided she was done. I was glad I was able to share some of the homemade treat with her on the sly — and also proud that she shares my distaste for chemical-tasting cake, given that we don’t have it around here. I’ve never had much confidence in my baking skills and so have, yes, sadly, resorted to doing it from a box, but I will be more conscientious in the future!

  8. We often pass a beautiful display case when my kids go grocery shopping with me. They see the prettiest cakes…and I cringe. I’m hoping for success making homemade pink icing with beet powder to ensure they have the prettiest cakes without those icky ingredients.

  9. When your cake is ready, do share it.

    Beauty of a cake or any prepped food should be the care invested. Memories are created with the thoughts.

    We live in a society where convenience to create memories with fraud-food is prevalent. If we love our special people in our lives, we should be more responsible within our buying decisions.

    No Fake-Cake® , I prefer Care-Cake that has no need for trademark or copyright for it is a reflection of our love from our hearts.

  10. Does anyone know where I can send for a ready made birthday cake that is gluten free, soy free, and GMO free? I’m in SW FL but woud be willing to order to be shipped. Thanks!

  11. As a teacher, we were required to make sure our kids brought cakes from a grocery store. Students were not allowed to bring home-made cakes or cupcakes to share with the other students because of liability issues! From this article, it seems this is completely backwards. After reading this, it just goes to show how far we are away from being able to ensure kids are raised with real (and good) food.

  12. Hi Vani! I live in Charlotte as welk and wondered if you have done any research on the new Whole Foods Market they just built and if their cakes are gmo free. Thanks!

  13. Some of the stuff in these cakes is really scary. Cellulose in food always bothers me. When I was teaching, I had a senior who wanted to know what was in papier maiche paste (cellulose) and if you could eat it (yes, but not recommended). He opted to try it and had a horrible stomachache–no wonder kids feel sick after parties. I’m the latest generation of from-scratch bakers, using old family recipes. I don’t feel bad about serving them, since most of them have been around longer than the over-processed junk.

  14. The odd thing here in North Carolina is …. you can’t make real cakes or cupcakes to bring to school and cut out some of this chemical stuff…you can only use ones from grocery stores, warehouse stores, or big box stores… don’t have a choice to try and eat healthy…has nothing to do with allergies, the up level deems it more even and across the board so now one out does the other class. Such a shame that our children’s health has come to this.

  15. I am a teacher and have not heard store bought is required because of allergies. In our district, it is because of food poisoning. It’s horrible when a class all starts throwing up after a party with lots of treats. Who knows what really caused it – over eating sugar, horrible ingredients in store bought, or someone’s cooking. I say give a treat bag with a toy, small piece of fair-trade, organic chocolate and a sticker or pencil & eraser. As a mom & teacher, I prefer stickers or fancy pencils in a classroom to 25+ kids hopped up on sweets. Our family birthday tradition is your favorite dessert. This is often homemade pie in our house!

    1. My mom is a teacher too and would always complain about this… I recently gave my nephews a bunch of easter treats but no food related items and they couldn’t be happier! New paddle boards and kites for the beach trip coming up, the Muppets DVD, and a few books. You should have seen their cute excited faces!

  16. When I was growing up in upstate New York I remember going to real bakeries with my grandmother in the city. I’m sure back then they probably used real ingredients. I absolutely hate store bought cakes. I think that they taste horrible and the icing is always so artificial tasting and disgusting. I either make my own cakes or have a friend’s daughter who is saving for culinary school bake one for me. I’d rather have an ugly looking TASTY cake than a beautiful, artificial filled tasteless substitute.

  17. Those bakery cakes sound really gross! I always make cakes from scratch, but I really enjoy baking so it’s not a big thing for me. They are usually lopsided…but I think that just adds to the charm!

  18. Those bakery cakes sound gross. They may look pretty, but, those ingredients are horrible. I make my kids cakes. They usually want some creative flavor and design anyway.

  19. Locally in Charlotte there is a vendor at Matthews’ Farmers market and she will do a cake, she did my son’s first birthday cake and it was good. Check out The Market’s site and look for Vendors.

  20. Hey folks, If you are interested in helping your children (& adults) with ADD and ADHD amoung other disorders, check out the Feingold website. Essentially, eliminating certain artificial ingredients helps to if not entirely eliminates these disorders. There is a lot of good research info on this website even for non-members. Check it out. Our bodies are not made to digest petroleum based food additives. I took my 5th grader off medication and followed this program all through middle & high school. He is now a senior in college. It works. Feel free to contact me for more “how to” info. Start cooking!!

  21. Are you guys familiar with Pink Chocolate Cupcakes in Charlotte? Rashaa makes delicious 100% vegan cupcakes, no Dairy or Egg Ingredients, no Soy Ingredients, No Peanut Ingredients, No Cholesterol, No Artificial Colors (they use plant based food colors), No Artificial Flavors or Preservatives, Non-Wheat Vegan Options are also Available. You can custom order them for a party, she delivers them to your house or she sells them in Healthy Home Market on South Blvd. My 3 yr old is dairy free and we have had her cupcakes at his party for the past two years. The kids gobbled them up just like they would a grocery store bought cupcake. I absolutely love them!

    1. Where as this does not solve cake dilema, it does solve the store bought dilema required in some schools and is an alternative if you are a not a baker.

  22. CAKE! Oh, for a big chunk of Shoney Boy’s Hot Fudge Cake steaming with a big cherry on top! THOSE were indeed the days.

    Tell me your opinion on Cream of Tartar and Baking Powder?

    I must whip up a homemade cake tomorrow before I take the plunge into Elle’s 3w2w! I’m really looking forward to the program!

    1. Cream of Tarter does have some interesting side effects if it is inhaled or rubbed into the eyes… however, I’ve never had an issue with it. For Baking Powder, I would ALWAYS choose one without Aluminum. This is another reason why commercially made products are harmful.

  23. I’m more of a “real foods” observer and not quite on the bandwagon yet, but I both agree and disagree with you.

    First, as someone who likes to bake, I don’t see making a cake from scratch (or icing) as that much trouble. So I don’t understand why anyone buys a cake anyway. I think that bakery foods always taste so much worse than what you can make yourself. And all those weird ingredients! It only takes a few ingredients to make a cake!

    But, I also think that for an occasional treat (how often does anyone really bother making a frosted cake, anyway?), using regular sugar and flour isn’t the end of the world.

    I realize that some people do want to set a rigid definition for their diet and stick to it, and that’s just fine.

    I just definitely agree that making your own from scratch (with ALL baked goods) is definitely a million times better than buying from the store, but I, myself, wouldn’t take it to the length of refusing a homemade, simple cake a few times a year just because of the white sugar and flour.

    1. Robyn – I don’t disagree with you at all. I would never refuse a simple homemade cake on a special occasion… but one that comes out of a Duncan Hines box or Betty Crocker, I won’t even touch.

  24. Wow, just wow. This is pretty appalling, especially the Fresh Market cake – how ironic! When did cake baking become so complicated?? Very eye opening post, thank you. First time blog visit!

    1. Aggie – Thanks for your comment and welcome to the 100 Days of Real Food. Lisa has created an amazing resource – hope you have time to read some of her past posts and helpful tips.

  25. Great post! In your search did you uncover any local bakeries that were making “real” cakes? Would love to know. My daughter attends a pre-school where only store bought cakes are allowed due to allergies. Not ideal at all.

    1. Yes! Lots of them – Try Sweetie Pie, Sunflower Bakery, and Earth Fare. I’d still be sure to ask some of the questions above in the post when you make your order!

  26. Thanks Lisa & Vani! I, too, live here in Charlotte and just began planning for my 3-year olds birthday party. Had planned for a cute Dora decorated HT cake….until reading this. I’m glad to see the earlier post that there are people in the food business that want to make REAL CAKES for their customers. Speaking honestly, I have been on the sidelines of the real food lifestyle….reading and nodding in agreement but not quite jumping in…but I think a REAL CAKE for my daughters birthday is the perfect time and reason to dive in! Thanks!

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