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Why that “Healthy” Food Probably isn’t (& How to Fix That).

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The food industry uses slick marketing techniques to confuse, coerce, and bamboozle us into thinking we’re doing something good by buying their new “health food” products.

But these products are really just slightly modified junk foods.

Take a look at labeling laws for trans fats. These unhealthy, chemically-altered fats lurk in many processed foods, even though they’re known to contribute to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and dementia.

We can now buy the same old junk food with “zero” trans fats. The catch: if we read the label’s fine print, we’ll probably find the words “hydrogenated fats,” and unless we know food chemistry, we probably don’t know that hydrogenated fats are the very same thing as trans fats!

Interestingly, manufacturers can claim their products are trans-fat-free if they contain less than half a gram of trans fats per serving.

But we know most people eat the whole box or package of food—rarely just one serving. Most packaged foods contain two to four (or more) servings, which we probably aren’t going to share.

Always trying to stay a few steps ahead of us (we know trans fat is bad by now, right?), manufacturers got savvy with healthy sounding phrases like gluten-free, high fiber, high protein, or no sugar added. These are all just further marketing claims to get us to buy their products.

These and other terms have replaced the low-fat craze popular in the 1980s and 1990s.

Americans fell for that one hook, line, and sinker, guiltlessly consuming high-sugar, “fat-free” Snack Well cookies that could actually be certified “heart-healthy” by the American Heart Association (AHA) because they contained no fat.

In fact, even a can of cola could be certified “heart-healthy” by the AHA because it’s fat-free!

Today we’re falling for other health-halo claims like “low carb” or “all natural.” Caveat emptor! Dangerous ingredients in processed foods come in many disguises, and even the savviest customers occasionally get duped.

My philosophy is based on eating unprocessed, organic, whole, real foods—as close to nature as they were created—whenever possible. The best approach to buying and eating food is simple: If it has a label, don’t eat it!

Unfortunately, that’s not always possible or practical.

Navigating the murky world of processed foods to make the best choices can become a challenge. I’ve found these seven strategies help my patients:

  1. Be a smart label reader. Labels contain both the ingredients and specific (but not all) nutrition information. Read them both, including the amount of sugar per serving. If the label lists any ingredients we don’t recognize or sound dubious, stay away from it.
  2. Don’t be duped by marketing. The front of the label is food marketing at its most clever, designed into seducing us into an emotional purchase with exaggerated claims. Turn the package around and read ingredients. That’s the only way to truly know whether that food is safe.
  3. Check the order of ingredients. The most abundant ingredient is listed first. Others are listed in descending order by weight. If the real food is at the end of the list and sugar, wheat (gluten), or other problem ingredients are at the beginning of the list, put it back.
  4. Beware about serving sizes. Manufacturers keep sizes comically small to make processed foods look like they contain less sugar or other junk ingredients than they actually do. We’ll probably eat several servings before we feel full, so keep that in mind.
  5. Look for additives or problem ingredients. If the product contains high-fructose corn syrup or the word “hydrogenated,” don’t buy it.
  6. Look for ingredients that don’t agree with us. Identify sensitive food ingredients we react to like gluten, eggs, dairy, soy, tree nuts, or peanuts. Be vigilant about reading labels, as these ingredients often hide in foods we least suspect. Manufacturers don’t always clearly label common allergens.
  7. Ask this question. Before we analyze the numbers, ask ourselves if this food could have been served at our great-grandmother’s table. She only served real food, and we should too for the most part.


Even with these rules, making smart choices can become a challenge. What strategy would you add here when we’re buying processed foods? Share yours below or on my Facebook page.

Author: Dr. Mark Hyman
Image: lion heart vintage/Flickr 
Editor: Emily Bartran

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About Mark Hyman

Mark Hyman, MD, believes that we all deserve a life of vitality—and that we have the potential to create it for ourselves. That’s why he is dedicated to tackling the root causes of chronic disease by harnessing the power of Functional Medicine to transform healthcare. Dr. Hyman and his team work every day to empower people, organizations, and communities to heal their bodies and minds, and improve our social and economic resilience. Dr. Hyman is a practicing family physician, a nine-time #1 New York Times bestselling author, and an internationally recognized leader, speaker, educator, and advocate in his field. He is the Director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. He is also the founder and medical director of The UltraWellness Center, chairman of the board of the Institute for Functional Medicine, a medical editor of The Huffington Post, and has been a regular medical contributor on many television shows including CBS This Morning, the Today Show, CNN, The View, the Katie Couric show and The Dr. Oz Show. Dr. Hyman works with individuals and organizations, as well as policy makers and influencers. He has testified before both the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the Senate Working Group on Health Care Reform on Functional Medicine. He has consulted with the Surgeon General on diabetes prevention, and participated in the 2009 White House Forum on Prevention and Wellness. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa nominated Dr. Hyman for the President’s Advisory Group on Prevention, Health Promotion, and Integrative and Public Health. In addition, Dr. Hyman has worked with President Clinton, presenting at the Clinton Foundation’s Health MattersAchieving Wellness in Every Generation conference and the Clinton Global Initiative, as well as with the World Economic Forum on global health issues. Dr. Hyman also works with fellow leaders in his field to help people and communities thrive—with Rick Warren, Dr. Mehmet Oz, and Dr. Daniel Amen,he created The Daniel Plan, a faith-based initiative that helped The Saddleback Church congregation collectively lose 250,000 pounds.  He is an advisor and guest co-host on The Dr. Oz Show and is on the board of Dr. Oz’s HealthCorps, which tackles the obesity epidemic by educating American students about nutrition. With Drs. Dean Ornish and Michael Roizen, Dr. Hyman crafted and helped introduce the Take Back Your Health Act of 2009 to the United States Senate to provide for reimbursement of lifestyle treatment of chronic disease. Dr. Hyman plays a substantial role in a major documentary, produced by Laurie David and Katie Couric, called Fed Up (Atlas Films, September 2014)which addresses childhood obesity. Please join him in helping us all take back our health at his website, follow him on Twitter and on Facebook and Instagram.


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