Should we buy food with health claims on the label?

These days, we are seeing more and more health claims that go beyond the usual. These include "trans fat-free," "gluten-free," "heart healthy," and foods spiked with vitamins, such as my new favorite: sodas with vitamins and minerals.

We see whole-grain breakfast pastries and chicken with misleading labels such as "raised without antibiotics." We see natural sweeteners advertised as fiber. We see whole-grain cereals that are still full of sugar.

Now you can get "health food" like salads at fast food restaurants, but with salad dressings that have more calories than their biggest burgers.

And we also see antioxidant-spiked junk food and ginkgo-spiked energy drinks.

What should we make of all these marketing claims? Do they provide any benefit?

In Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food, he rails against the notion of "nutritionism," the idea that we can single out nutrients from whole foods, add them back to processed food, or take them as supplements, and achieve health benefits.

His point is very well taken.

We must be very careful to avoid the marketing ploys of the food industry, which wants to trick us into eating more junk food by putting it in friendlier packaging.

Make no mistake.

These foods are still wolves in sheep's clothing.

We need to be very wary of any food that comes in a package, box, or a can. That is not to say that there are not some good whole foods that are available in boxes, packages, or cans.

However, most of what is available in the marketplace is simply not real food.

A recent patient of mine is a food scientist who works for a large food industry company. His job is to invent and create new foods in the laboratory by mixing food and chemicals to create certain tastes and flavors that mimic real food or that stimulate appetite and satisfy our need for various tastes.

Think of these as "Frankenfoods."

My patient became quite sick from handling these compounds and chemicals everyday. I have been working hard to get him to not only stop eating processed food, but also to stop playing with it.

He wore a funny T-shirt to my office, which listed the top 10 reasons to major in food science, a scientific discipline that teaches people how to invent foods for the food industry.

According to his shirt, here are the top 10 reasons to become a food scientist:

1. Eat ice cream for breakfast and get credit for it.
2. We are in it for the dough.
3. Grocery shopping is research instead of a chore.
4. We get to eat the results of our research project.
5. Because hairnets are a fashion statement.
6. Because we know what is really in your hot dogs.
7. Not only do we know how to drink beer, we can make it.
8. Cheese, yogurt, and buttermilk -- who says we are not cultured?
9. As long as you are eating, we will be working.
10. We have not stopped playing with our food and now we are playing with yours.

He gave me a food industry trade journal which I found very enlightening.

I was shocked to read the very careful and deliberate marketing ploys used to gain a foothold in our increasingly health conscious market.

The advice to the food industry was clear: Modify packaging and ingredients in food just slightly to give the impression of health, while continuing to provide poor-quality, nutrient-poor, calorie-dense foods.

For example, there was an ad for a company that provides new types of food coloring. This allows manufacturers to color junk food with natural pigments, which can replace the artificial coloring used in tablets, coatings, pan confections, rubs, sauces, and more.

Who are they fooling?

In this journal, I also learned that one company cleverly labels their chicken as "produced without antibiotics that impact antibiotic resistance in humans," meaning they did use antibiotics -- just not ones that cause problems in humans.

And one of the giant agriculture corporations that has been losing money recently, is creating a food line designed to make you think the unhealthy foods they sell are actually healthy.

Another article documented a company who said that innovation in the food industry will continue in areas of "perceived" health and wellness, convenience, and ethnic products.

Read that carefully.

"Perceived" health and wellness -- not actual health and wellness.

As long as you make people think they are getting something healthy, that is good enough -- even if it is the same old junk food.

Other new junk foods include allergy free junk foods and energy drinks. There was also an article about a company that now offers whole-grain pocket sandwiches, which are still full of chemicals and processed food, but now have a few more flecks of fiber to give the illusion of a health food.

There is even an ad for a compound designed for cholesterol reduction that puts plant phytosterols in sugary junk food!

So what's the bottom line?

As I have always said, if it has a label, do not eat it. And as Michael Pollan says, "Eat food [meaning real, whole food]. Not too much. Mostly plants."

We have to be very cautious as consumers to recognize label claims for health benefits on processed foods, which sprinkle minuscule, non-therapeutic amounts of healthful ingredients into otherwise poor-quality, high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods, giving us the illusion that we are doing something good for ourselves.

I encourage you to eat food that comes from a farmer's field and not a food chemist's laboratory -- and you will not have to worry about all these functional food claims.

Here is what to eat:

1. Whole, real food such as vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, lean animal protein like small wild fish and poultry, and whole omega-3 eggs.

2. Small amounts of grass fed, antibiotic- and hormone-free beef or lamb.

That is it.

Food scientists tend to make us think that we need all these special ingredients in foods to stay healthy.

But they are just extracting them from real, whole foods -- so why not start with the whole food in the first place?

Now I'd like to hear from you...

Have you sampled any of these "Frankenfoods"?

What did you think of them?

Why do you think the food industry is trying to make junk food seem healthier?

To your good health,

About the author

Mark Hyman, M.D. practicing physician and founder of The UltraWellness Center is a pioneer in functional medicine. Dr. Hyman is now sharing the 7 ways to tap into your body's natural ability to heal itself. He is also author of The UltraMind Solution: Fix Your Broken Brain by Healing Your Body First and The UltraSimple Diet: Kick-Start Your Metabolism and Safely Lose Up to 10 Pounds in 7 Days.