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A product photo is worth a thousand untrue words

There is one beef I have that I know bugs other consumers just about as much as it does me. It’s that I am often disappointed when what comes out of my oven bears little or no resemblance to the photo on the package of frozen entrees I buy at my local supermarkets.

We all know why manufacturers go to great lengths to show their packaged food contents in the best light possible. It’s to attract buyers to the product. But why oh why must the photo show a perfect entree dish when the manufacturers know there isn’t a hope that when it is cooked at home it will look anything like the photo?

The biggest offenders, I find, are some makers of lasagna, shepherd’s pie, and various brands of entrees like chicken or beef pie, cannelloni, some burgers, or seafood mixtures in pastry.

Take lasagna for instance. Some manufacturers show the product on the package, ready to serve, as being about two inches thick and laden with meat and pasta. When it comes out of your home oven it’s only about half and inch deep and has the consistency of baby barf. Shepherd’s pie is similar: the package often shows at least an inch thick pie with lots of meat, veggies and mashed potatoes. From your oven it is often a sloppy mess, with twice as many potatoes

I looked on the Internet to see if anyone else had similar complaints. On a website called Tasty Lies I found this comment about a certain brand of lasagna: “Well, it looks like hell. It doesn’t look like the box. The box looked delicious. This looks weird and messy and sad. I’m not sure what else to even say about it.”

On the President’s Choice website I found these comments: “ Purchased this shepherd’s pie to have for dinner one night of the week and was sadly disappointed. At first I thought it was just the kids being picky but once I tried it I realized they were right….”

In fairness, some manufacturers have started to use photos of the product as it appears when you first open the package, in all its naked glory. The product itself doesn’t look that great, but at least it not as misleading as the “beauty” shots.

By the way, those beauty shots don’t come cheap. Manufacturers or their agencies hire the best food photographers and top-notch food stylists, both of whom know how to make products look perfect for their portraits. Food stylists are they key. They will spend hours making a product look just so. The tools of their trade are cardboard, toothpicks, blow torches, shaving cream, motor oil and the like.

A photo of, say, cereal in a bowl, would be inedible in real life. The cereal would likely be lacquered and the milk would be replaced by white glue or white-out correction fluid. Then there’s ice cream, which is often replaced by mashed potatoes. Whipped cream is represented by shaving cream. Meat is browned by a blow torch or shoe polish. Other products are supported by cardboard, sponges, cotton balls and toothpicks. Pancakes are too porous to photograph so they are often sprayed with a generous layer of aerosol fabric spray. And since maple syrup doesn’t photograph well, motor oil is often used as a substitute. Mashed potatoes are a food stylist’s best friend. They can be loaded into syringes and then injected straight into meat to plump up specific parts of a turkey or roast, and they’re baked into pies to provide a sturdy interior that won’t fall to pieces when a slice is taken out.

Food stylists have also been known to spend hours with tweezers carefully and artfully placing sesame seeds on a burger bun.

And so it goes. No wonder photos on packages make the product look perfect.

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