It's easy to separate the nutritious from the less wholesome foods on the
extreme edges of the spectrum: Broccoli is obviously healthier than onion
rings. But things get blurry for foods in the middle. Products like yogurt,
multigrain bread and crunchy granola seem wholesome enough on paper, but
they can easily turn out to be the supermarket equivalent of wolves in
sheep's clothing. Fall for their deceptive ways and you could undermine
your diet and health. Even the most
health savvy among us can fall for certain health halos. Seriously, no one
is safe. These are some of the most glaring examples of foods many people
consider to be "healthy." Here's how to spot the pretenders and make
Wait! What?! It's the epitome of healthy eating, right? We tend to
associate granola with images of carefree outdoor living, not a calorie
bomb that can contain as much sugar as cereal whose mascot is a cartoon
character. For many granolas, the problem arises in the oils and generous
amounts of sweeteners, such as evaporated cane juice, used in the baking
Think of those clumps of oats fused together by caramelized sugars. A mere
½ cup serving can easily add 300 calories (without milk) and 15 grams
of sugar to your cereal bowl. And who eats only a half-cup serving? Words
like maple, chocolate and honey on the label should be a
tipoff to granola's sugary ways. And too often, store-bought granola skimps
on healthy nuts and seeds in favor of extra amounts of cheaper ingredients
like oats and sugar-coated dried fruits.
What to buy: To spoon up a granola with fewer waistline repercussions, turn
over the box or bag and pay close attention to the serving size and
nutrition numbers. There are better-for-you brands out there. You're
looking for one that delivers no more than 10 g of sugar per ½ cup
serving and has at least 3 g of dietary fiber. If a brand lists an
unrealistic ¼ or ⅓ cup serving, make sure to do your math. A
mere 8 g of sugar per serving seems fine until you realize that it's just
for a ¼ cup serving.
Extra nuts and seeds in the mix are a good sign because they provide
beneficial fats. Or go with muesli. It's also made with oats, nuts and
often dried fruits, but it is rarely baked with oils and sugars so it's
easier to find muesli with lower calorie and sugar counts.
Made by busy bees, honey receives a lot of buzz as a better alternative to
highly refined sugars. But if someone is evangelizing about honey as a
good-for-you sweetener, it's best to be skeptical. A 2015 The Journal of Nutrition article found that study participants who
ate about 2 tablespoons of honey, sucrose (white sugar) or much-maligned
high-fructose corn syrup every day for 2 weeks experienced the same impact
on blood sugar, insulin, cholesterol, blood pressure, body weight and
inflammatory markers. And this may sting a little: All of these "sweets"
were associated with a troubling rise in blood triglyceride levels, which
could raise heart disease risk. Despite its aura of naturalness, what's in
the squeezy-bear bottle is chemically very similar to white sugar and HFCS,
so as with all nutritionally poor sweeteners, honey needs to be consumed
with great restraint. Ditto for other so-called "natural" sweeteners like
maple syrup and coconut sugar.
What to buy: Yes, unpasteurized honey from local sources is a better
eco-choice than highly refined sugars or mass-produced liquid gold from
who-knows-where, but use it very judiciously-preferably less than 1
tablespoon a day. And that includes honey pumped into products like granola
and energy bars.
With mounting research about dark chocolate's health-boosting powers, it
seems almost criminal not to take a daily nibble of it. For instance, a
2016 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
showed that higher intakes of epicatechin, an antioxidant in chocolate, can
slash the risk of dying from heart disease.
But not all dark chocolate packs such a notable health punch. The problem
is there is no regulation of the term dark chocolate, so bars with
varying percentages of cocoa can call themselves "dark." And food
manufacturers seem more than happy to exploit this regulatory oversight.
If you read the ingredient list of various products like chocolate-covered
nuts claiming to be made with dark chocolate, you'll often notice something
is amiss. After "chocolate" appears on the ingredient list, look for
brackets stating what the so-called "dark chocolate" is made of. More often
than not, sugar is the leading ingredient-meaning the not-so-dark chocolate
is more sugar than antioxidant-packed cocoa. (Ingredient lists go in order
from most to least by weight.)
What to buy: Most studies on the health benefits of chocolate used a
product made with more cocoa than sugar. So look for products whose
ingredient list shows "cocoa" listed before "sugar." And when shopping for
dark chocolate bars, seek out brands that state a cocoa (or cacao) amount
of at least 70%.
Bread labels fool many people into buying refined grains in disguise. Loafs
touting slogans like "made with whole grains," "7-grain," "multigrain," or
"rye" are often made mostly with nutritionally inferior refined flour.
Manufacturers may include some whole grains like whole-wheat or whole-rye
flour in the mix, but the amount added is anyone's guess.
And don't give products sporting the yellow Whole Grain Stamp a free pass,
as a Harvard study (Mozaffarian 2013) found they can be higher in sugar and
calories than those without the label.
What to buy: To bag the best loaf for your lunch sandwiches, scrutinize
ingredient lists. Select one that comes closest to the basics: flour,
water, salt and yeast. The first item listed should be a whole grain rather
than "wheat flour" or "enriched flour," which are just euphemisms for
heavily refined white flour. Bread containing the FDA-regulated label "100%
whole grain" cannot include any refined flour.
True whole-grain bread is a good bet: A large review of studies with more
than 700,000 people published in the journal The BMJ (2016) found
higher whole-grain intake at the expense of refined grains like white rice
can lower the risk of death from heart disease, cancer and other chronic
maladies. Ideally, look for a 10-to-1 ratio of carbohydrates to fiber in
each slice. So if a slice of bread has 20 g of carbs it should also bring
with it at least 2 g of fiber. If any sugar is present, it should be buried
way down in the ingredient list-no more than 2 g of sugar per slice.
When it comes to health foods, veggie chips prove the
trendiness-as-truthfulness model doesn't always apply. Clever marketing
leaves many consumers believing vegetable-infused chips are a smart move
for snacking your way to an extra daily serving of vegetables. But this is
a case of "too good to be true."
Most veggie chips lead with a starchy ingredient-like potatoes, white rice
or taro-that ends up being a vehicle for oil, making the chips a high-carb,
high-fat snack but with little protein. Often, the calorie count is not
much less than you'd find in a bag of regular potato chips. Some chips are
made with a powdered veggie blend that can include everything from kale to
broccoli, but in the end, this is often largely an afterthought-and one of
the last ingredients listed. Yes, many veggie chips are baked instead of
fried, but people may just wind up eating more as they feel less guilty
about polishing off a bag. Plus, the amount of salt isn't always lower in
What to buy: Don't be sucker-punched by the word "veggie" in the title. A
few handfuls of highly processed veggie chips aren't a substitute for more
nutrient-dense fresh vegetables. In other words, load your grocery cart
with real beets and sweet potatoes instead of crispy versions.
Or try making your own veggie chips from items like kale or zucchini-which
are bound to be much more nutritious. But if you need a chip fix pronto,
look for a brand made with beans, which do provide more protein and fiber
than their competitors. Just make sure the first ingredient is beans.
The sheer number of nut butters on store shelves these days makes it clear
that consumers are going nuts for these spreads. And now they are coming in
all manner of flavors from mocha to chai. But along with the cinnamon and
chocolate flavors often comes sweet stuff like maple syrup, cane sugar or
honey, so it's all too easy for added sugar to sneak its way onto that
daily piece of toast.
Most Americans already consume too much added sugar, and fanciful nut
butters aren't helping the situation. Oh, and the dirty little secret of
low-fat peanut butter is that it's not nearly the calorie saver you
believe. While the light version of peanut butter has about 30% less fat
than the regular stuff, it often contains more sugar and sodium to make up
for the flavor lost when fat is stripped away. In fact, the added sugar
means the calorie count between the two is negligible.
What to buy: Full of healthy fats, peanut butter, almond butter and their
ilk can be a clean eater's best friend-if you're buying the real deal. The
ingredient list should include nuts, a touch of salt, and that's about it.
If you prefer flavored versions, opt for those with no more than 3 g of
sugar per serving. And shelve any reduced-fat offerings.
Alternatives to dairy milk have been surging in popularity, especially
almond milk. Yet moo-free milks like almond benefit greatly from an
undeserved health halo. By themselves, almonds are a nutrient powerhouse
rich in healthful fats and important nutrients like vitamin E and
magnesium. But a typical glass of almond milk is mostly just water and
practically devoid of protein and other nutrients. Why do you think a cup
of whole almonds has 824 calories, while a cup of watered-down original
almond milk has a mere 60 calories?
Almost all the nutrients such as calcium
and vitamin D are added to cartons by manufacturers. There remains a
question of how well the body absorbs vitamins like D and minerals like
calcium that are added to dairy-free milks compared to what is naturally
present in foods, such as authentic milk. Sugar can be another sour note,
Non-dairy milks like almond and cashew can be weighed down by added sugars
including rice syrup and cane sugar. This is in contrast to the naturally
occurring sugar (lactose) present in true milk. What's more, many nondairy
impersonators contain emulsifiers (such as carrageenan, a polysaccharide
extracted from seaweed), which are added during the manufacturing process
to improve texture and keep ingredients from separating. But preliminary
research suggests that these add-ins have the potential to mess with the
healthy bacteria in our guts (Reardon 2015).
What to buy: If you're following a dairy-free diet and gravitate toward
nut-, seed- or legume-based drinks, make sure to choose those that are
labeled "unsweetened" and don't contain added sugars. Even those labeled
"original" typically contain troubling amounts of the added sweet stuff.
And think about going old-school and opting for soy milk. Of all the
nondairy alternatives, soy reigns supreme in protein. Each cup delivers
protein levels nearly on par with regular milk: 6-8 g per cup.