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 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!)

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 http://FoodBabe.com.

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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!

    http://www.mamacado.com/2013/04/birthday-cake-recipe-gluten-free-dairy.html

    http://www.mamacado.com/2013/09/healthy-first-birthday-cake-dairy-free.html

  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.
    ~Zee

  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…..you 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? http://www.pinkchocolatecupcakes.com. 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!

  27. Eeeek…confession time:
    I decorate cakes for a hobby/side job…and I was sooo guilty of using food coloring/gels and white bleached flour..along with oils and crisco :(
    I became so frustrated with “not real foods” and so obsessed with “real foods” that I actually STOPPED the hobby that I once LOVED…because I couldn’t figure out how to combine healthy/real food and cake.
    I just recently started to do a bit more research and I’m excited to get back into the cake decorating business. I’m working on only organic real food cakes now. I’ll admit, they aren’t as Flashy as my cakes once were…but I’ll get them there!! For me, making a cake was all about the decorating and I never paid much attention to what went IN the cake, I used the ingredients and the “stuff” that made the cakes pop, stand out, be the consistancy that I needed in order to decorate…but I started to feel so guilty about WHAT I was allowing my friends,family and consumers to eat, once I started reading and researching real foods.
    I’m so happy you posted this!! I think it’s important for everyone to be aware of what they buy and put into their bodies. I hope to one day be that baker that people trust because not only are my cakes pretty but they are REAL :) Thanks Lisa and Vani!!

    1. lindsey:
      how do you color your frosting now? I took a cake decorating class before I became interested in real foods, and I’d *love* to make some cakes for my family, but I don’t know how to color the frosting so that we can still have things like flowers and such on it…. I know some people use things like beets and blueberries for coloring eggs — can you use those for frosting without messing up the taste?

  28. 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!!

  29. 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!

  30. 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.

    1. 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!

  31. 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!

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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? ;)

  35. 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.

  36. 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!!

  37. 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!

    1. 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!

    2. 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.

  38. 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 :(

    1. I know – I hate this rule! Especially since what they make at most stores is thousand times worst than what could be made at home!

  39. 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?

    1. 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!

    2. 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.

      1. 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!

  40. 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! :)

  41. 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.

    1. That’s one of the hardest places for me trying not to stand out – everyone is eating your boss’s birthday cake, except you…. eeeeeeeeeek!

  42. 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.

  43. 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.

  44. 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.

  45. 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.

  46. 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.

    1. 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.

  47. 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.

  48. 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.

  49. 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?

    1. 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.

    2. 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!

    3. 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!

  50. 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! : )

  51. 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.

  52. 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 :)

    1. 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 :)

  53. 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.

  54. 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!!
    <

  55. 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?

    1. 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!)….

  56. 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!

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

    2. 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/

      1. Ha! You had covered it after seeing it! It was disturbing. Did you see the natural strawberry flavoring… :(

  57. 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?

  58. 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.

    1. Ha! I bet the take a big bag of pre-made mix and pre-made frosting out that is made in some chemical factory somewhere. It’s the equivalent of us making duncan hines or betty crocker but worse…

      I also used to have eczema, asthma and terrible allergies – They all went away when I cleaned up my diet. To read the story of how I made the switch to real food check this out – http://clclt.com/eatmycharlotte/archives/2012/04/04/eat-with-your-dollars-with-the-food-babe

  59. 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.

      1. Well the ingredients necessary to make a cake in general. I use non aluminum powder, etc…but the ingredients on the mixes and storebought have things that you can even BUY in a grocery store! I have seen xantham gum though :) but most of it not…

  60. 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.

  61. 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.

    1. Feel free to post it anywhere and everywhere! Spread the good word Julie!
      MMMMmmm and homemade carrot cake is one of my favorite things in the whole wide world.

  62. 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!

    1. Thanks Kristin for sharing your woes… There’s a lot of beauty that can come from nature, maybe try to decorate your cakes with edible flowers, fresh fruit or dried fruit?

  63. 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.

  64. 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.

      1. 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!

    1. 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…

      1. 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

      2. 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!

  65. 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.

  66. 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!!!

  67. 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!

  68. 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!

  69. 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!!!

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

      1. 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 ;)

  70. 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.

  71. 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! :)

    1. 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?!

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