Grocery Store Spotlight: Navigating the Baking Aisle

We’ve all been in a situation where we needed a quick dessert in a pinch.  Maybe you’ve gotten into bed and realized that you were supposed to bring cupcakes for your child’s class party the next morning, or you remember it’s a friend’s birthday at work.  Or, perhaps you just didn’t have time to do anything elaborate for the neighborhood potluck.  Unless you thought ahead and ordered something from the bakery, you find yourself in the baking aisle at the grocery store, desperately searching for a quick and easy treat that might even fool people into thinking that you’ve got it all together and made something from scratch!  (No judgment, I’m a domestic goddess in training myself!)

Let's face it, sometimes a box of brownie or cake mix is the best we can do!

But have you ever looked at the contents some of those brownie and cake mixes?  Well I have, and they are full of unhealthy ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, artificial flavoring, modified starches, dyes and a bunch of words I can’t pronounce!

For example, here’s a look at the ingredients in a box of Betty Crocker Super Moist Yellow Cake Mix:

Enriched bleached flour (wheat flour, niacin, iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), sugar, corn syrup, leavening, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil, modified corn starch, corn starch, salt, propylene glycol mono and diesters of fatty acids, dextrose, dicalcium phosphate, distilled monoglycerides, sodium stearoyl lactylate, natural and artificial flavors, xanthum gum, yellow 5 and yellow 6.

Think twice before you grab the Betty Crocker box brands.

And here are the ingredients in the Duncan Hines Caramel Turtle Brownie Mix:

MIX: Sugar, Bleached Wheat Flour (Wheat Flour [Enriched with Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid], Malted Barley Flour), Cocoa Powder Processed with Alkali, Walnuts (Nuts, Corn Oil, BHT Added to Protect Flavor), Vegetable Oil Shortening (Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil), Wheat Starch, Dextrose, Salt, Cornstarch, Artificial Flavor, Carrageenan, Leavening (Sodium Bicarbonate). CARAMEL TOPPING: Corn Syrup, Water, Dextrose, Sugar, Modified Food Starch, Natural and Artificial Flavors [Milk], Salt, Phosphoric Acid, Caramel Color, Potassium Sorbate [Preservative], Sodium Citrate, Colored with (Yellow 5, Red 40, Titanium Dioxide).

And surely that sweet little dough boy wouldn’t put anything harmful in his products. 

Let’s see what’s really in Pillsbury’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough:

Enriched Flour Bleached (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Semisweet Chocolate Chips (Sugar, Chocolate Liquor, Cocoa Butter, Soy Lecithin, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Salt, Milk), Sugar, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean and Cottonseed Oil, Water, Molasses, Eggs, Salt, Baking Soda, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Natural and Artificial Flavor.

He's not as sweet as he looks!

Here are the contents of Ghirardelli’s Double Chocolate Brownie Mix:

Sugar, enriched bleached flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folate), chocolate chips (sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, vanilla), partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils, natural cocoa, wheat starch, cocoa (processed with alkali), salt, artificial flavor, sodium bicarbonate, natural butter flavor.

So maybe you think you can find better-quality products if you head over to the frozen section and grab a pie or cake there.  Think again.

These are the ingredients in the Sara Lee German Chocolate Layer Cake, the biggest doozie of them all!

Water, sugar, skim milk, high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (coconut, soybean and/or cottonseed and palm kernel oils), enriched bleached flour (wheat flour, niacin, iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), eggs, corn syrup, whey protein concentrate, vegetable oil (soybean and/or cottonseed oils), cream, maltodextrin, walnuts, butter, coconut, cocoa processed with alkali, mono- and diglycerides, milk protein concentrate, almonds, propylene glycol ester, modified corn starch, polyglycerol esters of fatty acids, salt, leavening (sodium acid pyrophosphate, baking soda, corn starch, monocalcium phosphate), acetic acid esters of mono-diglycerides, lactose (milk), xanthan gum, natural flavor, cellulose gum, polysorbate 60, soy lecithin, sodium citrate, disodium phosphate, colored with (beta carotene, caramel color, and annatto extract), carob bean gum, guar gum, soy flour.

I checked it out, and all the Sara Lee cakes and full of harmful ingredients.

Ok, so right about now you might be despairing that I’m declaring all the mainstream brands you’ve been buying for years to be unsuitable.  But don’t fret, there are some healthier options out there for those of you who don’t have the time or desire to bake everything from scratch.

Look for the Dr. Oetker Organics brand, found in the natural section of your grocery store.  Their products are all USDA Certified Organic and don’t contain all the junk.  They make brownie, cake, cookie, pancake, icing, pudding and other mixes.  I baked a batch of the chocolate brownies the other night to make sure they didn’t taste gross (The things I do for the sake of research!), and they were delightful.  I don’t think anybody would be able to tell that they were any different from the popular brands.   There were 5 ingredients in the brownies I made:

Organic Cane Sugar, Organic Enriched Wheat Flour, Organic Cocoa, Salt and Baking Soda

Now that’s an ingredient list I can feel better about eating and feeding to my friends and family.  When it comes to cookie dough, I like the Immaculate Baking Company products, found in the natural section of the grocery store as well as health food markets.

This company uses real, organic ingredients and there are no syrups, dyes or hydrogenated oils in sight!

Another brand that I’ve purchased but haven’t tried out yet is Cherrybrook Kitchen.  This might be a great brand for you to try if you’re often baking for people with gluten and dairy sensitivities.

So, it turns out the secret to conquering the baking aisle is to avoid it all together!  The healthiest brands are often found in the natural section of your regular grocery store or at health food or specialty markets (Trader Joe’s provides some great, affordable options.).  There are so many choices out there, so as always, read labels closely and find the brand with the fewest ingredients (that you can pronounce!).  You might want to stock up so you always have something on hand in an emergency!

Alright, so we may not bake like Martha Stewart, but we can raise the bar on the store-bought desserts we serve to the people we love!  Next time you need cupcakes, cookies or brownies in a hurry, avoid the Pillsbury, Sara Lee, Duncan Hines, Ghirardelli and Sara Lee brands in the baking aisle and frozen section and reach for healthier alternatives.  Yes, they will probably cost a bit more, but I think it’s worth it to save yourself dozens of unnecessary, damaging ingredients.


Filed under Grocery Store Spotlights

8 responses to “Grocery Store Spotlight: Navigating the Baking Aisle

  1. Dr. W Jim Smith

    I have notices when i am in Romania, Dr. Oetker is a very popular brand among the people there. I brought home several baking ingredients from there. Dr. O’s CoaCoa, major difference in their ground coco and Hersheys! Then they also make a powdered vanilla flavoring, all organic (compared to ours with MSG) unfortunately I can not find the vanilla here in the USA but can find the coco! Thanks Joanna for the thoughts and guidance! (I remember when you stayed with us once .. you act like trash you get treated like trash) well – in our bodies – TRASH IN TRASH OUT! We need to treat and feed our bodies better!

  2. Mel

    Michael has issues with wheat intolerance so I buy the Pamela’s gluten free products. Their chocolate brownie mix is amazing – you’d never know it was healthy! We add walnuts to make it a little healthier (ha!) For pancakes, we use their mix as well – so light and fluffy and delish! Thanks for posting all these ingredients – disgusting, isn’t it? I am SO glad I know to eat better than that, but I wish we could get the world on board! I post your blogs sometimes to my Big Organic Garden Facebook site and will post this one – great info!! Slowly but surely…

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  4. Fran Carvalho

    I bought Dr. Oether Organic Vanilla Cake Mix but I looked at the contents(see below) and there is Thiamin Monomitrate…is that not unhealthy too??!!

    Organic Vanilla Cake Mix
    Dr. Oetker Organics Vanilla Cake Mix delivers pure, unaltered flavor in every bite. Our organic ingredients are grown without man-made pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and are free of chemical processing. Dr. Oetker Organics, your helping hand in delicious organic baking.
    Organic enriched wheat flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), organic cane sugar, baking soda, cream of tartar, salt, organic locust bean gum, organic vanilla flavor (contains gum arabic), natural flavor

    • Hi Fran,

      Thanks for reading my blog and for your comment. Thiamin mononitrate is vitamin B1. In the US, processed flour must be enriched with thiamine mononitrate (along with niacin, ferrous iron, riboflavin, and folic acid) to replace that lost in processing.

      Hope that helps!

  5. Fran Carvalho

    Thanks JoAnn,
    I am very confused about this subject. I have been searching for some days and finding that Thiamin is vitamin B1 but Thiamin Mononitrate is considered to be a synthetic vitamin??!!(Below comments from someone on the web sites that I was researching).

    “Only Thiamine is vitamin B1, and Thiamine mononitrate is a synthetic form created using nitrate salts. I’m sorry that’s not the answer you are looking for but it’s just a fact. Look it up anywhere, including wikipedia. However what most of you don’t know, is that organic foods can contain this as well. I was surprised to learn that the organic breads that I was buying were full of this mononitrate. I believe it must be allowed due to it being a vitamin, even though it is synthetic. I was thoroughly disappointed in this fact, and it makes it much more difficult for me to avoid it. “

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