Can You Spot the Health Food Impostors?

Many seemingly virtuous foods are nutritional villains in disguise. Here’s how to ID the real good guys.

by Matthew Kadey, MS, RD

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 smarter selections.

Granola

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 process.

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.

Honey

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.

Dark Chocolate

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%.

Multigrain Bread

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.

Veggie Chips

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 veggie chips.

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.

Quote: A typical glass of almond milk is mostly just water and practically devoid of protein and other nutrients.

Nut Butters

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.

Almond Milk

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, too.

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.

Pretenders to the “Healthy” Crown

Stay on guard for not-so-healthy products masquerading as saintly food.

“Halo” Foods What They May Be Hiding
Marinara sauce Excessive added sugar and sodium
Spinach pasta Lots of refined carbs, only trace amounts of spinach
Vanilla Greek yogurt Three to four times more sugar than unflavored yogurt
Ground chicken Saturated fat from dark meat and skin
Fat-free salad dressing Abundant sugar and sodium
Himalayan pink salt Sodium level not much lower than table salt
Kombucha High-calorie sweeteners that tone down tartness
Bran muffins Store and coffee shop versions packed with excess calories

Meet our experts

AFM_Author_Kadey Matthew Kadey, MS, RD, is a James Beard Award-winning journalist, Canada-based dietitian, freelance nutrition writer and recipe developer. He has written for dozens of magazines including IDEA Fitness Journal, Runner’s World, Men’s Health, Shape, Vegetarian Times and Fitness.

The information provided is without warranty or guarantee and NASM disclaims any liability for decisions you make based on the information. Learn more