May 19, 2017

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

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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