I began reading food labels after passing out at my neighbors’ dinner table from a food reaction. For two decades I had been shopping the outside aisles of the supermarket where whole foods supposedly lived. But, except for ice cream, I had not questioned dairy products. (Most ice creams include more than the five basic ingredients recommended as the watershed between real and fake foods.) Whipping cream, I thought, for the cobbler I was planning.

The text on the front of the package of the All Purpose Whipping Cream read “super fresh” and “ultra-pasteurized,” which meant raw milk had been preheated to just below 200 degrees Fahrenheit and then thermally processed to a temperature at or above 280 degrees Fahrenheit for at least two seconds. Ultrapasteurization cooks milk, which gives it a longer shelf life: six months in an unrefrigerated aseptic (airtight, sterilized) container and up to 50 days in a refrigerated plastic milk container.

The ingredient label read exactly as follows: “cream, carrageenan (helps hold the whipped cream peaks), mono and diglycerides (made with vegetable oil, helps put air into the cream as it is whipping), and polysorbate 80 (made from corn oil, helps create stiff peaks).” Wow, I thought, whipping raw heavy cream makes glorious peaks that last for days. And they’re not only killing the nutrients in the cream by cooking them, they’re cutting back on the cream and substituting seaweed and highly processed vegetable oils.

According to Dr. Mary Enig, a biochemist who is an internationally recognized authority on fats (“Know Your Fats”), the intensive processing of these vegetable oils breaks down their chemical structures into parts that act like razor blades in human veins and tissues. These broken structures are the free radicals that cause heart disease.

Enig, since the 1970s, has tried to tell the public how dangerous trans fats are, how untrue the lipid hypothesis used to demonize the animal fats people have eaten for centuries is, and how unhealthy the vegetable oils used to substitute for animal fats are. When Enig exposed the scientific flaws in the lipid hypothesis, her work was successfully suppressed, and she never again got any funding. She is associated with the Weston A. Price Foundation. And, together with Sally Fallon, she wrote “Nourishing Traditions” and “Eat Fat, Lose Fat” (about healing diets).

The carrageenan in the cream is a gel-like thickening and stabilizing agent made from seaweed. Polysorbate 80 is a surfactant (aids the blending of two liquids, like fats and water) and an emulsifier (helps the surfactant to blend). Mayonnaise, for instance, is an oil-in-water emulsion made possible with the lecithin emulsifier in egg yolks. Polysorbate 80 substitutes for egg yolks. And mono- and diglycerides are fats made, usually, from highly processed soybean, cottonseed, sunflower or palm oil. They, too, act as emulsifiers. And they keep most baked products from getting stale. In other processed foods, such as ice cream, margarine, instant potatoes and chewing gum, they serve as stabilizers and give body and improved consistency.

Enig writes mono and diglycerides are not just made from oils — they are the waste byproducts of oil industry processing. They are modern, cheap substitutes for lard and butter and, apparently, for egg yolks. And, while they can be trans fats and do have some caloric value, industry is not required to list either condition on a label.

So, AP ultrapasteurized whipping cream is not a “super fresh” food – an oxymoron of stunning proportions. It is a fake food.

When did this happen?

Ann Vileisis, in “Kitchen Literacy,” describes how food additives have long been a problem in America. As more people relocated to cities in the early 1900s, the food industry turned to preservatives to cut spoilage and reduce costs. They used solutions of formaldehyde, salicylic acid, borax and boracic acid, all of which “mask the natural signs of decomposition that had traditionally signified danger to cooks and eaters,” according to Vileisis. The Pure Food and Drug Act, which required labels listing ingredients, was passed in 1906 after some of the largest manufacturers recognized that under the act, which would supersede state and local regulations, they could develop national markets that could and did squeeze out local and regional markets.

Almost immediately, Vileisis writes, the distinction between man-made ingredients and “natural” ingredients became a political football. Eventually, the act allowed the use of “artificial colorings, flavorings and preservatives as ordinary parts of the American diet.” The average shoppers of that era could not evaluate easily the additives on labels, so they came to rely on the government to protect them. And, they use brand names as a marker of quality.

But the Pure Food and Drug Act, Vileisis notes, did not prohibit the “inclusion of toxic ingredients in medicines,” and in 1937, a company used the untested drug sulfanilamide to treat streptococcal infections. Sulfanilamide killed “more than a hundred people, mostly children,” Vileisis writes, which led to the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which required drug manufacturers to test toxicity and report findings to the Food and Drug Administration before a drug could be sold. The act did not include provisions for toxicity testing for pesticides or food additives. However, Michael Pollan writes in “In Defense of Food,” and this is very important, this act did require that the word “imitation” be listed with regard to “any food product that was, well, an imitation.”

World War II shortages, Vileisis writes, jump started the creation of processed foods, which grew from about 1,000 products prewar to 4,000 or 5,000 new products postwar. By 1950, one in four women worked outside the home, so there began both a loss of time and energy to cook and more money to buy processed food products.

The key shift to fake foods occurred in 1973 when industry succeeded in overturning the imitation label requirement. Pollan writes that the change was not made by Congress, but by the FDA, which simply repealed the imitation labeling requirement within the depths of “a set of new, seemingly consumer-friendly rules about nutrient labeling.” The document stated that “as long as an imitation product was not `nutritionally inferior’ to the natural food it sought to impersonate,” it “could be marketed without using the dreaded `I’ word.” The “regulatory door,” writes Pollan, “was thrown open to all manner of faked low-fat products: Fats in things like sour cream and yogurt could now be replaced with hydrogenated oils or guar gum or carrageenan, bacon bits could be replaced with soy protein, the cream in `whipped cream’ and `coffee creamer’ could be replaced with corn starch, and the yolks of liquefied eggs could be replaced with, well, whatever the food scientists could dream up, because the sky was now the limit.”

This process of nutritional equivalency, an equivalency decided by industry in collusion with the government, birthed the fake foods that now fill our supermarkets. This process created a huge experiment that uses human subjects eating fake foods. Look around you: the experiment is not going well.

What we can do – and it’s easy here in Maine – is return to eating the nutrient dense, whole, clean foods available in our local markets.

Louisa Enright lives in Camden. Her discipline is cultural studies, which focuses on systems of cultural power.