Health Food Truths

Are most health foods really good for you? Unfortunately, reading their labels won't help you find out.

“Low-carbohydrate” pasta is in a category of health foods known in the trade as “lesser evils” – foods with fewer unwanted calories, fat, trans fat, sugars, salt, or carbohydrates. There is now a whole industry of such products, as well as health foods classified as “natural,” “organic,” and “functional.” But are these foods really better for you?

In the United States, “organic” has a precise meaning established by the US Department of Agriculture. “Natural,” however, means whatever the food producer or manufacturer says it means. So-called “functional” foods – or “techno-foods” – are those to which manufacturers add omega-3 oils, artificial sweeteners, indigestible starches, cholesterol reducers, soy or milk (whey) proteins, phytochemicals, and other ingredients to enable them to take advantage of “qualified” health claims permitted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Sales of lesser-evil and functional foods have done well in recent years, bringing in about $85 billion in US sales in 2004. If you routinely buy such foods, you are among LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) consumers – the health food industry’s cherished demographic base. You buy low-carbohydrate products, energy and nutrition bars, vitamin- and mineral-fortified foods and beverages, soy foods, and practically anything with a health claim.

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