Don’t get duped: what those “health” claims on packaged foods really (don’t) mean



First of all, I want to be clear that I strive to eat a lot of actual foods that don’t require fancy packaging and nutrition and ingredients labeling, like real vegetables, fruits, locally and responsibly raised eggs and meats. If it doesn’t require a nutrition label or ingredients list, it’s likely to be a healthier choice. But it’s simply not realistic for my family–or most of you, I’m guessing–to avoid buying products that require actual packaging. And that’s what this post is about: not getting duped by the health hype plastered across the front of food product packaging.

I have a habit of which I’m quite proud, but drives my husband bonkers at times (like when we are in a bit of a hurry). When grocery shopping, I automatically flip a product over to read the BACK of the label and check out the actual ingredients. What often follows this act is an immediate eye roll and placement of the product back on the shelf. It’s become so automatic for me. I absolutely disregard the front of the label because I know these are the marketing claims conjured up by some advertising agency to help their client sell a specific brand to their target audience. I know this, because in my past life I helped do similar work for the pharma / biotech industry. Emphasis on “past life” part of that statement.

Here are a few common claims that often sound great to us, but are really just marketing gimmicks that are way more hype than health.

  • “All natural”, as in “all natural” chicken, beef, whatever animal protein you’re thinking of purchasing. This term means absolutely NOTHING. Manufacturers can slap this claim on whatever they want, and it can mean whatever they want it to mean. When talking about animal proteins, like poultry, pork, and beef, the vast majority of animals raised in the United States are factory-farmed in the most UNnatural conditions imaginable. For example, factory-farmed chickens share a battery cage (about the size of an iPad) with 3 to 11 other chickens, and don’t see the light of day. Not exactly how Nature intended.


  • “No added sugar”. This claim sounds pretty straight-forward and healthy, right? But it’s sneaky. Next time you think about buying a pre-bottled, manufactured green drink, turn that bad boy over and look at the ingredients, the number of servings, and the actual grams of sugar in each serving. It doesn’t take a lot of “green” to make the product LOOK healthy. You’ll find that many pre-packaged green drinks on the market contain mostly apple juice or fruit puree, and then maybe the 9th or 10th ingredient is an actual green vegetable, but not a very meaningful amount. As of right now, the FDA doesn’t consider fruit juices or purees as “added sugar”, even though these ingredients cause a serious spike in your blood sugar. But maybe the product really does have “no added sugar”, but guess what? It may have artificial sweeteners to replace the sugar. In many low-sugar products, Splenda (aka sucralose) is added. Artificial sweeteners remain controversial among health experts, but there’s enough evidence there to convince me that they are NOT a good idea. Potentially neurotoxic, and also tend to magnify a sweet tooth rather than help people reduce sugar intake


  • “Multigrain”: this means that the product contains more than one type of grain, and none of them may actually be whole grains. Flip the product over, and you’ll likely see that the first (key) ingredients are refined flour (ie, straight to sugar in the body), and other highly processed, unnatural ingredients. In other words, not a health-food by any stretch of the imagination. In a similar vein, “made with whole grains” means just that. There may be some whole grains in there, but they may or may not be the main ingredients. Again, you’ll likely see lots of processed stuff in there, NOT a real food with real nutrients.


  • “Low-fat” or “Non-fat”. Geez, I can’t believe these things are still dominating the shelves. It seems that the message is FINALLY getting out that fat is not enemy #1. But I still have to look really hard for normal yogurt because it’s buried among 48,000 different types of no-fat, non-fat, 0% formulations. Very often, when you look at the back of that non-fat yogurt label, you’ll see lots of sugar! This is true for other food products that would naturally contain fat, but have had the fat removed to make it “healthier”. They have to add SOMETHING in to make it palatable with less fat, and often that means sugar or other undesirable additives. This being said, there are certain TYPES of fat (mostly man-made, of course), that are not healthy. And guess what? they are exactly the types of fat found in most packaged, processed foods!!!

Bottom-line: you have to be your own food detective. Sad but true. If it requires a wrapper or container, if it has a “brand”, turn it over and scan the nutrition label and ingredients. For the next post, I’ll give you some easy tips for how to quickly determine if a product is worth your health and money.

Are your habits causing inflammation? Plus 5 reasons to think before popping the ibuprofen

Many of us don’t think twice about chucking that economy-sized bottle of ibuprofen into our shopping carts right along with a head of lettuce and a jug of protein powder. Indeed, “Vitamin I” has become a staple strategy for reducing America’s pain and inflammation. Headache? Menstrual cramp? Backache? Overzealous-workout-induced muscle aches? Sure, ibuprofen can ease your discomfort. And I shouldn’t be picking on ibuprofen here—there are a plethora of other, so-called NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) out there. Drugs like aspirin, naproxen, and prescription-only agents like meloxicam and celecoxib (aka Celebrex) are quite fashionable as well.

Here’s a crazy stat for your next cocktail party (or not): each year, we Americans collectively pop a whoppin’ 30 BILLION doses of NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen. I don’t think Costco makes a bottle THAT big….yet.

As a pharmacist, I don’t think there’s too much harm in the occasional use of drugs like ibuprofen or naproxen by people who have a healthy heart and blood pressure, good kidney and liver function, and a fortified gastrointestinal tract. But, I see that many people aren’t aware of the risks of frequent or chronic use of even over-the-counter (OTC) NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen (aka Advil, Motrin, Aleve).

Let me break it down for ya:

  • Roughly 1 of every 4 people who chronically use NSAIDs will develop an ulcer
  • Risk of a gastrointestinal bleed or perforation (YIKES!) is about 4 times higher in people who use NSAIDs compared to those who don’t
  • NSAIDs reduce blood flow to the kidneys and can result in kidney damage—especially if used frequently by people with high blood pressure, heart failure, or diabetes.
  • About 1 in every 10 cases of drug-induced liver damage is due to NSAIDs
  • If you take low-dose aspirin for cardiovascular health, some NSAIDs actually reduce the heart benefit of that aspirin

Back to the gut for a sec: scientists who want to better understand how NSAIDs (like OTC ibuprofen, naproxen, and regular-strength aspirin) cause ulcers have actually shown that they profoundly change the composition of the gut microbiome, and not for the better (if you missed my last post that espoused the magic of the microbiome, you can read it here). In other words, when we take NSAIDs, we are risking hostile takeover of our gut microbiomes by not-so-friendly bugs. And that could negatively affect our physical, mental, and emotional health as outlined in my previous post.

For all of the fitness enthusiasts out there, how often do you turn to OTC or prescription NSAIDs to ease joint or muscle aches? I’m hearing more and more that people in the athletic / fitness community are popping NSAIDs to keep injuries from “flaring up” or to reduce DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness) after workouts and training sessions. In addition to the stats on potential NSAID-induced adverse effects listed above, here’s another reason to pause before you pop that pill: researchers have shown (for decades) that NSAIDs actually impede the building and repair of muscle. And while the human data are more ambiguous than the dramatic effects seen in animal studies, the totality of evidence has convinced most experts to recommend against long-term use, especially of prescription doses of NSAIDs. The general consensus from a recently published review article in the journal Connective Tissue Research is that NSAIDs inhibit the healing process of connective tissue and the stimulating effect of exercise on connective tissue protein synthesis.

Interestingly, at least one study has shown that 400mg of ibuprofen (a standard OTC dose) had no more effect on post-exercise muscle soreness than placebo.

Healthy ways to quash inflammation

How can you continue your exercise / training routine while reducing the use of drugs like ibuprofen, naproxen, etc? What if you have chronic aches and pains?

Below I’ve included 5 non-NSAID strategies that can help reduce the amount of inflammation in the body and shift you back toward a healthy balance of inflammation. Remember that inflammation isn’t all bad! When we’re injured or have an infection, for examples, inflammation is crucial to the healing process—it’s how the body fights back and repairs damage. BUT, it’s important to consider that inflammation is not necessarily just an acute response to injury. More and more, researchers across multiple specialties—from the brain to the heart to the liver to the gut—are all finding that “silent”, chronic inflammation is a key underlying commonality of diseases like diabetes, heart disease, depression, ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease, liver disease and even cancer.

These 5 strategies below aren’t quick fixes—more like habits to be incorporated into your lifestyle.

  1. Cut down on sugar and processed food. Better yet, eliminate them. Sugar has been shown to trigger the release of chemical messengers in the body that promote inflammation. Processed foods in general ain’t doin’ you any favors.
  2. Choose fats that are rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Many food products in the aptly-acronymed SAD (standard American diet) are relatively heavy in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. We do need omega-6 fatty acids, but the SAD tilts the scale waaaay to much in favor of omega-6—like about 20x too much! Many oils found in abundance in processed foods are high in omega-6, such as corn, peanut, vegetable, safflower and sunflower oils. And trans fats (hydrogenated oils) are also known to promote inflammation. In addition, grain-fed meats from factory farms are rich in omega-6. On the flip side, foods like avocados, olives, walnuts, almonds, flax seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, coconut, coconut oil & milk, grass-fed beef, pastured chicken (and eggs), grass-fed butter, and ghee (clarified butter) are all rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
  3. Get enough good sleep. Sleep is when our bodies repair. And the vast majority of us are not getting enough restorative, uninterrupted sleep. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recently stated that sleeping fewer than 7 hours per night is associated with weight gain, diabetes, depression, heart disease, impaired immune function, increased pain, and impaired performance—lots of the same issues that are related to too much inflammation.
  4. Consider supplementing with omega 3 fatty acids. I personally take a tablespoon daily of Barlean’s Ultra High Potency Omega Swirl. It tastes great (my uber-picky 4-year old thinks it’s a treat to get a teaspoon after dinner), with NO burping / indigestion issues that people often complain about with capsules. By the way, one of the main reasons those fish capsules may be giving you the burps is because the oil is rancid. YUCK is right. To avoid this, be picky when buying fish oil—get one that is “molecularly distilled” which means that the oil has been purified enough to remove contaminants that promote rancidity. (Note that Barlean’s Omega Swirl does not say “molecularly distilled” on the bottle, but I checked the company’s website FAQ’s and their fish oils are ultra-purified through molecular distillation). Also, choose a fish oil with roughly 1000mg EPA and 500mg DHA (2 key types of omega-3)—don’t just look at the total milligrams of omega 3’s.
  5. If you have joint pain or other inflammation-related conditions, consider taking curcumin. This is a key component of turmeric, the yellow spice that gives curry its bright color! This substance has been studied for MANY types of inflammatory conditions ranging from diabetes to dementia, and is currently the subject of much ongoing research. Here are some VERY important considerations before you start taking a curcumin (or turmeric) supplement:
    1. Not a good idea to start curcumin if you are currently taking warfarin (Coumadin) or clopidogrel (Plavix). Curcumin can increase the anti-clotting effects of these drugs.
    2. Pick a supplement that contains a specific type of curcumin known as “BCM-95”. This specific formulation is much better absorbed. Turmeric capsules are very poorly absorbed, meaning that very little of it will actually get into your system. Several companies now make BCM-95 formulations. I have no ties / relationships with any of them. I personally take a brand called CuraMed (made by Terry Naturally), one 750mg capsule daily, and have had none of the GI distress that has been reported with other turmeric supplements.

My short take on all this:

There’s A LOT we can do to tamper inflammation that doesn’t involve medications that come with potentially counterproductive or even dangerous side effects. What we choose to do on a daily basis has a ginornmous impact on our levels of disease markers, including inflammation—both the kind that we feel as pain and the “silent” inflammation now recognized as a component of many chronic diseases. Our food choices, physical activity, and sleep are so important to our health. You may hear this advice all the time, but are you really checking into gauge your food, movement, and sleep habits? And if they aren’t so healthful, are you ready to make changes for the better?

Please share any questions you have about inflammation and treatment options, and I will do my best to provide answers!


Lanza FL, Chan FKL, Quigley EMM, et al. Prevention of NSAID-related ulcer complications. Am J Gastroenterol 2009; 104:728–738.

Dideriksen K. Muscle and tendon connective tissue adaptation to unloading, exercise and NSAID. Connect Tissue Res. 2014;55:61-70.

Krentz JR, Quest B, Farthling JP, Quest DW, Chilibeck PD. The effects of ibuprofen on muscle hypertrophy, strength, and soreness during resistance training. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2008;33:470-475.

Rutters F, Nieuwenhuizen AG, Lemmens SG, Born JM, Westerterp-Plantenga MS. Acute stress-related changes in eating in the absence of hunger. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2009;17:72-77.