Why Do We Keep Buying Fake Foods Even When We Know They’re Fake?

Watermelon chewing gum, pumpkin spice lattes, wildberry pop tarts – there are plenty of flavors out there that have nothing to do with the real food that inspired them. But if we know they’re articifial, and sometimes very unlike the real thing, why do we continue to buy them?

The New York Times recently took a look at the new Oreo flavor, cookie dough. I bet I don’t need to tell you that there’s no actual cookie dough in it, after all, the kind you get if you’re making cookies at home is made using raw eggs. Instead, it’s an assortment of additives, flavors and processed ingredients to simulate what cookie dough tastes like.

If we know that it’s not cookie dough, why do we buy it?

It’s what the marketing world calls “permission” – researchers have learned that consumers will accept a replicate of a real item, even if it’s only mimicking the original product and not producing an actual replica. According to the New York Times, “Trial and error by food inventors has shown that if an imitation can evoke one or two elements of the original — say, the smell, or the color — consumers will give the product their ‘permission’ to pass for the real thing.”

That means that as long as food marketers can replicate individual aspects of certain foods, they don’t have to entirely replicate the whole thing, which is why we continue to be inundated with products that boast certain flavor profiles that have nothing to do with the real food that they’re advertising.

Is it dishonest?

When it comes to food marketing, there’s certainly a lot of greenwashing, but there are many people trying to do something about it. The Center for Science in the Public Interest for example raises awareness about marketing and the food industry; they even threatened to bring a lawsuit against McDonald’s, but when it comes to mimicking foods, there are plenty of ways to jump through loopholes.This is big industry after all.

The Oreo Cookie Dough packaging has “cookie dough” marked loud and clear, but to the right there’s a smaller “flavored cream.” In other words, not real cookie dough.

You’ll also notice that while real cookie dough is made with chocolate chips, the Oreo filling is “Made with choclatey chips.” According the New York Times, “the ‘y’ was added because the soft, dark bits in these cookies did not meet the F.D.A. definition of chocolate.” Food companies are certainly under regulation for what they can and can put into foods, as well as how they label them. But just like there are ways to get around what products they add to food, there are plenty of ways to legally market foods even when they’re not actually food.

Even in products that do contain a trace of what they claim to be made with – Nabisco Sundried Tomato & Basil Wheat Thins for example – there is still a laundry list of other things. Those sundried tomato crackers? The package puts a sundried tomato front and center, making you think of a quaint plate of whole wheat crackers, freshly made and served with tomatoes and basil. The reality, however, is quite the opposite:

Whole grain wheat flour, soybean oil, sugar, cornstarch, malt syrup (from corn and barley), salt, invert sugar, leavening (calcium phosphate and/or baking soda), tomato powder, sundried tomato powder, garlic powder, spices (including basil), onion powder, dried red and green bell peppers, yeast extract, vegetable color (paprika, annatto extract, turmeric oleoresin, paprika extract), natural flavor, caramel color, sulfur dioxide and/or sodium metabisulphite (to retain color), bht added to packaging material to preserve freshness.

Is that what you would have used if you had been making crackers at home? I didn’t think so.

Remember, we’re talking about food products and not real food, there’s a difference. Which means that if you want real cookie dough, you need to be making it at home.

Photo Credit: Mike Mozart


Jim Ven
Jim Ven11 months ago

thanks for the article.

BJ J3 years ago

There's another article in this email about "Food Fraud: 5 Foods that are Deliberately Mislabeled". If things like honey, olive oil, coffee are intentionally mislabeled & really not organic or healthy like you think you're buying, don't think eating an occasional fake food is going to make much difference. You need a chemical dictionary & a lawyer when you go grocery shopping just to interpret ingredients listed on labels.

Michelle Spradley

I can't speak for all those snack foods, but wildberry pop tarts taste good to me. I also like Oreos, but cookie dough flavor seems a bit redundant. Original, chocolate cream filled and peanut butter cream filled are a perfectly sufficient assortment.

Elisa F.
Elisa F3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Bill Eagle
Bill E3 years ago

I don't eat Oreo's, but I love corn curls.

Sara Gustavsson
Sara Gustavsson3 years ago

thanks for sharing

Rhonda B.
Rhonda B3 years ago

I don't eat oreos.

JL A3 years ago

good examples of the trend

Ivana Brekalo
Ivana Brekalo3 years ago

nice article

Lisa Wood
Lisa Wood3 years ago

All great questions. I honestly do my best NOT to purchase any of these foods and have to say I don't miss it.