Health Foods that are Dangerous for Your Health

by

YOU COULD BE EATING sawdust — and not even know it!

Sound crazy?

Let me explain.

On a recent plane ride to a medical conference, I started a conversation with the man sitting next to me to pass the time.  I told him that I was a physician working in the area of nutrition.

He exclaimed that the new low-carb craze was a boon for business.  I assumed he was in the food business — but I was wrong.

When I asked him what he did for a living, he replied that he worked in the wood pulp industry.

So what’s the connection between wood pulp and low carbs?

As it turns out, cellulose — an indigestible fiber starch — is one of the main ingredients in processed low-carb foods.

And what’s another name for cellulose?

Sawdust!

Yes, cellulose gives us those low net carbs that food manufacturers like to cite on labels.

The bad news: Cellulose provides no nutrition — and maybe even a lot of gas.  Termites can digest wood, but humans can’t!

This is just one example of how the food industry uses slick marketing techniques to confuse, coerce, and bamboozle you into thinking that you’re doing something good for yourself by buying their new “health food” products that are simply slightly modified junk foods.

They’re taking advantage of our nutritional naivety — and this country’s labeling laws.

Want another example?

Just take a look at the new labeling laws for trans fats.

These unhealthy chemically altered fats are found in almost every processed food, even though they’re known to be one of the causes of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and dementia.  Clearly, trans fats aren’t fit for human consumption and should be completely eliminated from our food supply.

So does our government protect us from these toxic fats?

Of course not!

Instead, through powerful lobbying efforts, the food industry was able to put a big loophole in trans fat labeling laws.

That means you can now buy the same old junk food — with “zero” trans fats.  But read the label’s fine print, and you’ll find the words “hydrogenated fats.”

The catch: Unless you know food chemistry, you probably don’t know that hydrogenated fats are the very same thing as trans fats!

Is this false advertising?

Well, not exactly.

According to the new law, manufacturers can claim that their products are trans-fat-free if they contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fats PER SERVING (1/2 cup).

But we know that most people eat the whole box or package of food and rarely eat just one serving.  Most packaged foods contain 2 to 4 servings, which are usually never shared.

That means you are getting a lot more trans fats per snack or meal!

If the label lists any ingredients that you don’t recognize, you should likely stay away from it.

Plus, another loophole in these labeling laws allows companies with a storehouse of printed labels to use them until 2007, even if they don’t indicate the amount of trans fats in the food.  That means that a company could have printed a year’s worth of labels on December 31, 2005 — so it can use them on foods with large amounts of trans fats for a whole year.

Sneaky, right?

You think you’re getting trans-fat-free food, but you’re really eating trans-fat-FULL food!

And if you’re eating these foods on a regular basis (as the $33 billion that the food industry spends on consumer marketing helps ensure), then you’re still eating a lot of trans fats.

The result?

The government looks like it’s doing the right thing — but you’re really just eating the same old junk with a new label that makes it look healthy.

The government wins — and you lose!

Here’s one more example of how labeling laws hurt your health.

Remember the low-fat craze?

Americans fell for it hook, line, and sinker, guiltlessly eating boxes of high-sugar but “fat-free” Snack Well cookies — which 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!

There’s no doubt about it — here is something very twisted about the food labeling laws, which are SUPPOSED to protect us.

But what they really do is protect the food industry.

We are duped into thinking that if we shop in a health-food store or buy foods that are labeled low-carb, or trans-fat-free, or low-fat, or heart-healthy, we are safe.

But the dangerous ingredients in processed foods come in many disguises.

That’s why 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, as we all know, that’s not always possible or practical.  So here are some guidelines for being a more educated consumer and learning how to read between the lines on the labels.

==> Reading Food Labels: If You Really Have to Buy Something Processed

While the “if it has a label don’t eat it” rule is the ideal, consumer demand has led to the creation of many foods that are clean, whole, simple and that actually have clear labels. They tend to be found in whole-foods stores or the health-food section of your grocery store.

(By the way, if there is a “health-food” section in the grocery store, what does that make the rest of the food sold there?)

My general rule: Be a smart label reader.

Labels contain both the ingredients and specific (but not all) nutrition information. If the label lists any ingredients that you don’t recognize, you should likely stay away from it.

Follow these tips, too:

1) Don’t be duped by marketing.

Remember, the front of the label is food marketing at its most clever. It is designed to seduce you into an emotional purchase and may contain exaggerated claims.

2) Look for quality ingredients.

High-quality organic whole foods are now available in packages, cans, and boxes.

3) Check the order of ingredients.

The most abundant ingredient is listed first and then the others are listed in descending order by weight. If the real food is at the end of the list and sugars or salt are at the beginning of the list, beware.

4) Consider what’s NOT on the label.

Foods that are exempt from labels include foods in very small packages, foods prepared in the store, and foods made by small manufacturers.

5) Look for additives or problem ingredients.

If the product contains high-fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, put it back on the shelf.  As I explained earlier, simply looking at the level of trans fats can be deceptive; you need to look at the actual ingredients to sniff out these dangerous fats.

6) Look for ingredients that don’t agree with you.

Identify food ingredients you are sensitive or react to, such as gluten, eggs, dairy, soy, tree nuts, or peanuts. Be vigilant about reading labels, as these ingredients are often “hidden” in the foods you least suspect. The labeling of common allergens is not always clear or helpful.

7) Investigate unfamiliar ingredients.

Search the Internet to find credible sources of information about any unfamiliar ingredients on the label before you buy. These include such as carmine, Quorn, and diacylglycerol. Credible Internet sources tend to be government or educational sites, which end in “.gov” or “.edu” rather than “.com.”

8) Discover if any “functional-food ingredients” are being added to the food product.

Though they may be helpful, more often than not, they are “window dressing” present in small amounts, and with minimal value — except to the marketing department of the manufacturer. Examples of this include live active cultures added to high-sugar, high-fat yogurt or vitamins and minerals added to gumballs!

In other words, it’s best to get healthful, functional-food ingredients from their whole-food sources, rather than as additives to otherwise nutritionally empty foods.

9) Finally, ask yourself: Would your great-grandmother have served this food?

Before you analyze the numbers, ask yourself if this food could have been served at your great-grandmother’s table. She only served real food.

==> Understanding Nutrition Labels: Think Low GL and High PI

Glycemic Load (GL) is a measure of how quickly a food enters your bloodstream. The lower the GL, the better your health.

Phytonutrient Index (PI) means the amount of colorful plant pigments and compounds in food that help prevent disease and promote health. The higher the PI, the better.

Here are some questions to ask when you read nutrition labels:

1) Is this a typical serving?

For example, a cereal label may give the nutritional profile of a 3/4-cup serving when your typical portion is really 1 1/2 cups. Worse, the label may say that it contains 2 or more servings, when most people consume the whole amount in the container or bottle. Have you ever known 4 people to share one pint of Hagen Daaz ice cream?

2) Are the carbohydrates high GL or low GL?

Remember, the total amount of carbs is less important than where the carbs come from. If they are found in foods with a low GL and high PI, they will have a very different effect on your appetite and weight than foods that are quickly absorbed and have few nutrients and fiber.

3) Where’s the fiber?

It is one of the main factors that determine GL, and fiber can also give you a clue about the PI of a food. Many packaged foods contain no fiber, while some healthy items such as oils, spices, and herbs are naturally void of fiber. If convenience items such as soups, entrees, or snacks are missing this key fiber factor, leave them on the shelf.

4) What are the total carbohydrates?

Remember, the type of carbohydrates is what matters most. If they are from whole plant foods that contain plenty of fiber or have a low GL, their effect is very different from fiberless foods. The same amount of carbohydrates from a can of beans and from a can of cola affects the body in very different ways.

5) Where are the good fats?

Monounsaturated and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats should dominate this category, with minimal amounts of saturated fat and zero trans fats (present on foods labels from 2006 on).

Unfortunately, omega-3 fats are rarely listed independently on labels, but are listed as part of the polyunsaturated fat family. Other polyunsaturated fats — like corn oil and safflower oil — are less than healthful but also show up in this section of the label.

This list of rules may sound daunting, but once you begin analyzing food labels, you’ll quickly get a feel for what’s good and what’s not – and your body and mind will thank you for that for years to come.

Try heading to the grocery store and reading labels with your new perspective.

Now I’d like to hear from you:

How have you been confused by labels thinking you were getting something healthy only later to find out it was not?

Have you had any challenges eliminating trans fats from your diet?

Are you surprised or shocked by any of the current nutritional labeling practices?

Do you have any other suggestions that you’ve found to work at reading food labels or choosing the best foods in general?

Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, MD

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30 Responses to Health Foods that are Dangerous for Your Health

  1. Gail Leggett February 5, 2011 at 9:53 am #

    I try to save time reading labels by taking the following steps: 1- If the list of ingredients uses more than 4 lines, put it back on the shelf; 2- At the end of the ingredients there is usually a list of allergens, if any of the foods I’m sensitive to are listed, back on the shelf. 3- If I still have it in my hand, I carefully read the ingredients to see if I’m protecting myself as much as possible before I decide whether or not I’ll buy it.

    I also have some of my favorite manufacturer I trust more than others. I usually look for those first.

  2. kewal bhambra February 5, 2011 at 11:22 am #

    It was AN EYE OPENER though I thought I am quite good in reading labels.It
    changed my perseption a lot.
    thanks a lot
    kewal

  3. Jackie February 5, 2011 at 11:39 am #

    You are better off not eating items with labels. Bottom line. Unfortunately, that is really difficult but not impossible. I’ll bet if more people simply said “No” to those types of foods and resisted buying the convenience food, manufacturers would wake up and produce healthier products. Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
    I don’t know why people are always so shocked when they discover that businesses highest priority are their bottom lines– that is the religion and quintessential politics of this culture — the dollar drives it at the cost of everything else including human lives and the quality of those lives. Until we challenge and undermine our infrastructure of greed in this culture (Americans are not the only culprits) these problems will continue to plague us. Hopefully, we will awaken and make changes before it is too late and we have destroyed both ourselves and our planet.

    • Margie February 23, 2014 at 9:58 pm #

      Jackie, forget about the “greed” of the food industry. That’s utter brainwashy anti-capitalist nonsense. They earn their money by satisfying demand. They don’t care what people want. People demand convenience and pleasure instead of health, and the food industry supplies it. Change the demand and they will respond to it quickly, or perish. The responsibility is OURS, not theirs. They’re only giving us what most of us want. Stop buying it and they will stop making it. Guaranteed.

  4. Jackie February 5, 2011 at 11:45 am #

    PS — in terms of food supply, I would rather eat sawdust than GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) and meat pumped full of steroids. Although I’ll take the steroids over GMOs. I’m a techie, but I have serious concerns about what GMOs will do to our future food supplies and agricultural industry (forget what they might do to our health and our bodies).

  5. Patsy Cushing February 5, 2011 at 12:06 pm #

    Dr. Hyman,

    How is one supposed to keep track of this list of tips while pushing a cart through the local Stop and Shop? Simplify, please.

    • Margie February 23, 2014 at 10:13 pm #

      Simple. Forget about labels. Don’t buy any manufactured food or pre-made meals. Stay away from the aisles, except for things like coconut & olive oils. Buy fresh (or frozen without additives) produce, fish, poultry, and meat. Buy plain raw nuts & seeds. If you must have mayo, pickles, dips, salsa, dressing, etc., make your own from scratch.

  6. Kim February 5, 2011 at 12:39 pm #

    How do I know the GL of a particular food? This has not yet become part of the label, to my knowledge.
    Thanks Kim

  7. Robert Barrett February 5, 2011 at 1:04 pm #

    Thank you, Dr Mark Hyman, for the information. As a reader of your column, and those of the Health Sherpa and Dr Al Sears, I am pretty well up to date with the fraudulent marketing techniques of the food industry. The most perversely amusing of the recent revelations is that Kelloggs and other allegedly health-oriented companies have been marketing ‘healthy’ breakfast cereals with fake pomegranates and blue berries, even showing pictures of the authentic fruit on the box. These events and your revelation prompt the following question: How long must we wait till we are all eating sawdust recycled from garbage dumps?
    Sincerely,
    Robert

  8. Pennie February 5, 2011 at 1:09 pm #

    Why are we all so lame in not knowing this information!! Thank You Dr. Hyman for reporting this information to open our eyes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! NO ONE WANTS TO DIE FROM HEART DISEASE, CANCER ETC, AND THESE FOOD PROCESSORS ARE NO DIFFERENT THAN A TERRORIST AS FAR AS I’M CONCERNED. At this point many people are so addicted and lied to, how can they turn back now? So sad, that a country like ours, does this to our own people, it’s so crazy!

  9. Jennifer W. February 5, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    You could also be feeding it to your beloved pets. Cellulose is one of the most used fillers in unhealthy pet foods. You should check the ingredients of your pet food to make sure Fluffy is also getting the nutrition she needs. The first ingredient should be a meat or a meat meal.

  10. Pam Robinson February 5, 2011 at 6:44 pm #

    Not only do I not buy items with aspertame and HFCS, I have contacted the companies who include it in the ingredients of products and told them how hurtful they are to be consumed. Heinz now has a ketchup without HFCS, Simply Ketchup. Other companies are following suit.
    Big problem is the doctors who prescribe drugs that they don’t even know what the heck they can do to their patients. They are following the advice of the pharmaceutical companies and they want to sell the drugs. I don’t even think that the pharm companies care that most of the drugs on the market are killers.
    The whole situation is insane.

  11. cab mccann February 5, 2011 at 6:59 pm #

    Thanks for some very good information.

    I make everything from scratch, use brown rice. I got rid of fruit juice and mayonnaise, two killers, definitely addicting and not good for you. I use sour cream in place of mayonnaise.

    I use coconut oil for frying, eat my eggs raw, and when citrus fruit is in season I buy lots of grapefruit, peel it like an orange, and eat it like an orange. All the skin and pith is very healthy and good for cleaning out the intestines.

    I buy granny smith apples when they are in season and not outrageously expensive, and I eat the whole thing, leaving nothing but the stem. I eat the seeds, which I find delicious, with a kind of almondy taste, and I understand it is full of B17, the anti-cancer vitamin.

    I have chickens and so my eggs are definitely fresh and from happy chickens. The yolks are bright yellow. I put about 3 in a glass and drink them down. It’s like drinking water — no taste. I’ve heard the eggs are better absorbed by eating them raw.

    I also make kefir using raw milk and real kefir cultures, the little cauliflower like things that are rubbery, and will multiply. They eat up the sugar in the milk and put back some good bacteria.

    I also take supplements, DHA supplements. I take vitamin D, about 15,000 IUs every other or third day. I heard it’s fat soluable, so since the body stores it, don’t need to take it every day. I take curcumin, and black walnut, wormwood and other astringent type anti-parasitics when I think I need it.

    I buy my meat local, lamb and beef. I still buy chicken at the store, but most of it I feed my dogs raw, and seems to be doing them a lot of good. It’s cheaper than dog food and I’m sure it is far better for my dogs than the dog food (which never, ever spoils and which they only eat if they are half starved and there’s nothing else to eat). I do use chicken quarters to make soup. I make a lot of soups and chilis. Lately I’ve been in a chili mood. I made the chili from scratch, and I shred up some cabbage and romaine lettuce, some red onions, some sharp cheddar cheese, put olive oil and vinegar on this, and then dump the chili right on top. I just like the texture and the way the flavors mix, but most people would probably think that was just a big mess, but I like it.

    The only thing I eat out of a can is canned tomato puree and crushed tomatoes and tuna fish. That’s it. Every two months or so I have a small bag of cans to dispose of. I have a small amount of burnable stuff that I burn in the burn barrel once every two weeks. I save all my plastic bags and find a lot of uses for them, same with my cardboard. I use everything. Not much trash coming out of my house for the land fills. I never, ever buy canned drinks or soda and I don’t even want to see that stuff. When I go in the supermarket, those shelves may as well be stocked with motor oil and chlorox for all the appeal it has to me as food.

    Anyway, that’s a summary of my crazy eating habits.

  12. james brimmage February 5, 2011 at 10:46 pm #

    Since I have voted with my wallet to not buy anything off a store shelf that is a verteren of” life thru modern chemistry”. I have lost 16 lbs, my energy is up and my wallet thicker. I’m eating more produce, and only eat of the sea “IF” I know where it’s from… sorry gulf coast. To hell with the mercury..and the corexit! So the canned revolution is now lost on me. I kicked the” monsanto madness” to the curb…forever. If it looks like a duck, quakes like a fish and glows in the dark…yup..gmo..ain’t happen’n here!$$..kiss it.

  13. Barbara C February 5, 2011 at 11:37 pm #

    We’ve had a struggle with knowing what to buy use for a margarine or ‘butter’. My husband loves that on toast or bagels (yes, I’m trying to get him ‘off” bagels, but sometimes he buys them on his trips to the store.) What are we supposed to use in that category? Most of the margarines are trans-fats and butter is a saturated animal fat. Non-fat cream cheese is awful, and full of junk; low fat cream cheese tastes OK but probably isn’t good for us. Sometimes olive oil doesn’t do it for us. Have tried fruit ‘butters’ but its hard to find any without HFCS or sugars. MUST we ‘do without?’ We’ve both given up SO MUCH in the past few years; why can’t we have SOMETHING that we like in that category? What would you suggest?

    • Sandi December 4, 2013 at 11:03 pm #

      I like to use coconut oil

  14. Missy Meier February 6, 2011 at 9:02 am #

    with the obesity crises in this country you would think that the government would step in and do something. what ever happened to truth in advertising?

  15. paulette mark R.N., Ph.D February 7, 2011 at 12:29 am #

    You make a lot of sense. Thank You!

  16. Lulu February 8, 2011 at 3:41 am #

    I am surprised and disappointed by the inaccurate and inflaming text. Until now, I have followed your emails and books with interest and appreciated the accuracy and respect for science. The above column is sensationalist and follows the same tactics you deplore in conventional foods.
    Cellulose is a natural component in vegetables as well as wood. It is insoluble fiber and not harmful. it would not create intestinal disturbances in normal healthy people any more than an increased intake in any type of insoluble fiber.
    What is the problem with using old labels if the product inside has been improved? The argument above is reversed and misleading.
    Spices and herbs are certainly not devoid of fiber but the quantities used do not contribute appreciably to fiber consumption.

  17. Steve Turre March 14, 2011 at 2:14 am #

    Hello,
    I the article “Health Foods that are dangerous to your Health” you talked about sneaky labeling practices. How the government allows this and “we loose and the government wins” . Well, the real truth is, it’s not the government that wins, it’s the corporations who win. In either case, it’s we, the people, who loose ! The truth is, the corporations control the government (at this time) rather than the people. We must change that ! Can you believe that the Supreme Court ruled that a corporation has the same rights as a person, and can contribute unlimited funds to whom ever they wish without disclosing who/what/where or when ! I know you don’t want to be political, but correcting this kind of malice will go a long way towards making us all more healthy, both physically and mentally.
    Regards,
    Steve Turre

  18. Trish July 30, 2011 at 5:24 am #

    How on earth do they get away with this???????

  19. Shadow October 26, 2011 at 10:09 am #

    And where is your dietician degree for this? By my reckoning, you’re not qualified to make such proclamations about food.

    I think it’s hilarious-you’re attacking cellulose and adjuring people to eat organic when cellulose is IN ORGANIC food itself. We can break this down mostly into glucose, a simple sugar, which is essential for a healthy body.

    Put your foot in your mouth, why don’t you? Unless that contains too much cellulose..

    • Ina O'Connor October 17, 2013 at 11:49 am #

      Unfortunately, from my experience as an RN the dieticians are part of the problem. What they have been taught is controlled by the strong food company dollars. I had to get a perinatologist order to keep a dietician from sending saltine crackers (white flour, salt and hydrogenated vegetable oil) for an afternoon snack for a hospitalized pregnant mom of twins. Another dietician argued that aspartame was fine for pregnant women because she drank it while she was pregnant.

      • Judy D. December 14, 2013 at 5:58 pm #

        Amen ! Im a nurse also (cardiac at the hospital and in my home life gerontology, oncology, pediatrics, neuro. gastro….the list goes on) Gestational Diabetes x3 for me, Celiac disease for 2 kids, Diabetes breast cancer heart diseas and Lymphoma for other family and friends have taken me to many dieticians as a “client or accompanying a client” through the years. There was only one dietitian i ever thought was less than appalling in her recomendations, expectations and understanding of patients abilities and needs. No wonder people are so overwhelmed and confused – there are fewer non-complient patients thanpeople who are just lost and have given up- or who try and dont have correct info, or have not been taught well. I have tons of horror stories about diabetics who have gone blind not because they didnt try but because they were never taught about carbs- its not just the snickers….its the fruit…and bread etc too. and i can guarantee its not because these people didnt listen or try! The stories are endless as i’m sure u know! So sad.

  20. Kim September 30, 2012 at 6:53 pm #

    Smacks of fearmongering. There are two types of fiber … only one of which is digestible. And many foods contain both. Adding more non-digestible fiber to foods is a great way to make foods like tortillas that are actually good for you. Of course there is no nutrition in these foods. This is no different from the all natural Japanese noodles that have zero calories. Those do not even have fiber in them, which is known to help keep you feeling full and to keep you regular, a great benefit to dieters.

    So long as the food tastes good (the high fiber tortillas and pastas that I eat taste great) and so long as the cellulose is not poisoning you (it is not, and it is entirely natural since it comes from plants!) then there is no harm. It is what you put *in* the tortillas and *with* the pastas that gives you the necessary nutrition. The carbs you get from the tortillas are finally not giving you a negative insulin response and making you fat. My opinion, of course.

  21. Carol July 5, 2013 at 9:02 pm #

    Not too worried about cellulous but, I don’t think there is such a thing as a healthy tortilla.,,,,cellulous or not.

  22. Judy D. December 14, 2013 at 5:59 pm #

    Amen ! Im a nurse also (cardiac at the hospital and in my home life gerontology, oncology, pediatrics, neuro. gastro….the list goes on) Gestational Diabetes x3 for me, Celiac disease for 2 kids, Diabetes breast cancer heart diseas and Lymphoma for other family and friends have taken me to many dieticians as a “client or accompanying a client” through the years. There was only one dietitian i ever thought was less than appalling in her recomendations, expectations and understanding of patients abilities and needs. No wonder people are so overwhelmed and confused – there are fewer non-complient patients thanpeople who are just lost and have given up- or who try and dont have correct info, or have not been taught well. I have tons of horror stories about diabetics who have gone blind not because they didnt try but because they were never taught about carbs- its not just the snickers….its the fruit…and bread etc too. and i can guarantee its not because these people didnt listen or try! The stories are endless as i’m sure u know! So sad.

  23. Margie February 23, 2014 at 9:56 pm #

    Jackie, forget about the “greed” of the food industry. That’s utter brainwashy anti-capitalist nonsense. They earn their money by satisfying demand. They don’t care what people want. People demand convenience and pleasure instead of health, and the food industry supplies it. Change the demand and they will respond to it quickly, or perish. The responsibility is OURS, not theirs. They’re only giving us what most of us want. Stop buying it and they will stop making it. Guaranteed.

  24. Joe February 24, 2014 at 6:23 am #

    I’d like a book on eating bugs void of disease, please. Apparently, there’s a bigger possibility of eating good carbs from bugs and their exoskeletons than there is TRUSTING most foods sold in grocery stores, which have existed for millenniums, VOID of the idea of subsistence farming!

  25. Caette February 24, 2014 at 8:55 pm #

    I did know all of this stuff but I know those that have fallen for it. One of the girls at work was going to give someone who had low sugar, a sugar free drink. “It’s sugar, just artificial.” I know that sounds dumb but this is what confuses people. My Mom only reads the label which says NO TRANS, but there is. Another one fooled. Hey…I bought some low carb bread once. Oh my,,,,pretty chewy, And, you could smell the wood burning in the toaster! LOL

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