Picture perfect, far from edible

A steaming stack of pancakes dripping with syrup. A succulent, golden-brown turkey. Heaps of garden-fresh vegetables. What appetizing pictures. But that syrup is really motor oil. That perfect bird has been painted and blow-torched. Those vegetables have been coated with corn syrup and liquid silicon.
Now you get the real picture.
Wednesday, June 16, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:07 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Those appealing images have been cooked up by food stylists, individuals trained to prepare and arrange food. The ingredients they use make trying to discern between fact and fiction a recipe for indigestion.

Tim Rodgers, co-owner of Rodgers-Townsend Advertising, a St. Louis agency, says embellishing a product is perfectly legitimate.

“You’re always allowed to describe yourself or your product in the best light possible,” he says. “It just can’t be in a way that people believe it is what it isn’t.”

The Federal Trade Commission can challenge a food advertisement on the grounds that it is false, deceptive or likely to mislead a consumer, and current law mandates that food advertised in the photo must be the actual product being sold. However, products can be enhanced, and props and side dishes can be fake.


What you see: A crispy, browned turkey

What they did:

The bird was washed in dishwashing detergent, cooked briefly (any longer in the oven and the meat would have pulled away from the bones), painted with 10 coats of food coloring and blow-torched for that lovely roasted look.


What you see: Crispy French fries

What they did:

Each fry was individually selected from hundreds of fries. The chosen ones were then secured to a Styrofoam base inside the package. This allowed stylists to more easily arrange the fries.


What you see: Golden, flakey chicken

What they did:

The chicken was sprayed with oil. Extra flakes were added with peanut butter. A finishing touch was generating steam to freshen the look of the day-old chicken used in the shoot.

Adding steam is one of the most frequently used techniques in the food advertising industry. This is done in a variety of ways, including the use of steam-generating chemicals or a steam-generating machine. Steam also can be added electronically in post-production.


What you see: The perfectly grilled burger

What they did:

The patty was first fried for 20 seconds on each side. Scalding skewers were then pressed against the meat to give it that “grilled” look. The color of the meat was enhanced with food coloring and then snipped and spread from behind so it looked bigger in the bun.

In order to ensure the most photogenic bun was used, a stylist sifted through hundreds of buns. Sometimes, sesame seeds were strategically glued onto the bun, which was lined with cardboard so it wouldn’t get soggy.


What you see: Heaps of garden-fresh produce

What they did:

Stylists sprayed vegetables with oil-based substances so the product reflected light. Similarly, fruit is painted with oil, then misted with water to create a beading effect. This technique also can be accomplished with corn syrup and liquid silicon (which is used for hair styling) or even Rain-X, a water repellant used on automobiles. And if the produce can’t be found in season, it might be airbrushed.


What you see: A stack of pancakes smothered with syrup

What they did:

Stylists sprayed the breakfast food with Scotchgard. Motor oil works well as a rich-looking syrup substitute.


What you see: A bowl of cereal drizzled with fresh milk

What they did:

Stylists used white glue or hair conditioner because neither would have immediately made the cereal soggy or shown a blue tint under studio lights. Real milk is only used when it is the actual product being sold


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