Michael Pollan's Least Favorite Foods

An expert outlines how to not be tricked at the supermarket.

January 25, 2012

Step number one for navigating the grocery-store minefield: Avoid anything processed.

Nowadays, even Sherlock Holmes would have trouble navigating the supermarket in search of truly healthy food. Marketing claims, labels, and ingredient lists are confusing—and that's just the point. Food corporations want to keep you baffled and tricked into thinking sugar-packed, salt-loaded, pesticide-tainted foods are good for you. But they're not! And for the past two decades, best-selling author Michael Pollan has been trying to help people make healthier food choices.


Pollan was a featured guest in the Philadelphia Speakers Series Monday night at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. He came onstage armed with two bags of groceries and explained why it's so hard to make sound decisions in the wilderness of food choice—the supermarket. "Even when you're trying to eat well, you'll find that there's one dilemma, one pitfall, after another," Pollan said, noting that supermarkets introduce about 40 new products a day. That's a whopping 14,000 new labels a year to scan! Most are convenience foods that aim to make our lives easier. The downside? Most are jammed with preservatives and other artificial ingredients that our bodies don't even know how to process.

#1: Lucky Charms
Pollan calls the cereal aisle perhaps the most treacherous part of a supermarket, and with good reason. Cereal labels are quick to market whole grain content, but less likely to highlight dangerously high levels of sugar or genetically engineered ingredients. Pollan pointed out that Lucky Charms lists whole grains as the top ingredient, but several different forms of sugar follow.
Pollan's Food Rule: Don't buy any cereal that makes your milk turn a different color.

Read More: An Exclusive Interview with Michael Pollan

#2: Special K Cereal Bars
Cereal bars are a form of brand extension for Special K. In essence, it's saying, "Forget the bowl, the milk, and sitting down," says Pollan, who notes that 20 percent of meals are rushed and eaten in the car.
Pollan's Food Rule: Try to eat at a table, not in a car, as often as possible. This helps you avoid overeating.

#3: Smucker's Uncrustables
Homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwiches used to be considered quick and easy lunchbox items, but Smucker's has managed to turn this old favorite into a packaged supermarket product. Uncrustables are premade PB&J sandwiches with the crusts already removed, and they're full of dangerous high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils. They are devoid of healthy fiber, which makes you want to eat more in the long run.
Pollan's Food Rule: Avoid any product listing high-fructose corn syrup as an ingredient.

#4: Kraft Bagel-fuls
Most people would agree that it's not too difficult to spread cream cheese on a bagel. The food industry thinks otherwise, and has come out with prepackaged, pre-stuffed bagels. What you might not realize is these are also stuffed with corn- and soy-derived ingredients that come from crops genetically engineered to be doused in pesticides.
Pollan's Food Rule: Skip mood-busting engineered-food breakfast items like bagels, and cook up pastured eggs. You can buy these directly from local sustainable farmers.

#5: Splenda with Antioxidants
"Splenda is an artificial sweetener made of corn derivative," Pollan explained, noting that taking cheap commodity crops like corn, soy, and wheat and turning them into complex products is a hallmark of food marketers. Adding nutrients like antioxidants is a marketing gimmick, said Pollan. "So now you have a non-nutritious sweetener with an extra nutrient," he added. Canada Dry is doing the same thing—adding antioxidants and vitamin C to products. "So now we're supplementing soda," Pollan said. "Is that sending a mixed message, or what?"
Pollan's Food Rule: Get your antioxidants from whole foods, not from something that comes in a package. For smarter sweetener picks, read The 4 Best and 3 Worst Sweeteners in Your Kitchen.

#6: Yoplait Low-Fat Yogurt
You would think low-fat yogurt is healthier than soda. But when considering sugar content, you might be surprised to learn that this type boosts 28 grams of sugar in a 6-ounce serving. That's substantially higher than most sodas! "See how you can try to eat healthy and get into all sorts of trouble?" Pollan pointed out.
Pollan's Food Rule: Make your own yogurt! It's easy! Or buy low-sugar versions and sweeten with real fruit or a bit of health-promoting honey.

#7: NeuroSun
This drink is loaded with vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin. It's marketed as a delicious drink designed to provide all the benefits of vitamin D without the harmful effects of being outside. Marketers are actually trying to capture the cognitive decline market—people losing their brain cells, Pollan joked. Of course, you could get ample vitamin D by spending a few minutes out in the sun, by taking a supplement, or simply by eating vitamin D–rich foods. (And that would cost much less!)
Pollan's Food Rule: If a food label is making health claims, don't eat that product. The healthiest foods, such as apples, don't have the marketing budgets of processed-food manufacturers.