While you might expect coy packaging and hidden unhealthy ingredients from the usual processed food suspects, many favorite “healthy” foods can be deceiving, too. To be sure you’re eating foods that will pay you back in health benefits, you need to know what types seem healthier than they really are. Then you can toss the legitimately good-for-you stuff into your shopping cart and enjoy.
Because if there’s one thing that the food industry is good at, it’s nutritional sleight of hand.
“Even the savviest shoppers get duped,” says Beth Reardon, M.S., R.D., director of integrative nutrition at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C.
How to use this guide
Each section begins by identifying the food items thought to be healthy. Next, we give you the truth. Finally, tips from experts on simple changes you can make to keep your favorites.
Sneaky Stuff: multigrain breads, crackers, waffles, cereals
Real Deal: Yes, the term “multigrain” means the product is made with more than one type of grain. “But that doesn’t mean any of those grains are whole grains or contain much fiber,” says Reardon. All or some of them may be refined or the whole grain might be just sprinkled on top for show.
Healthy Hints: If you’re going to reach for multigrain foods, make sure to read the nutrition facts label carefully and look for a whole-grain flour (e.g., whole oat, whole barley or whole brown rice) as the first ingredient. What you most want to avoid is “wheat flour,” which implies a refining process that removes dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants once found in the whole grain, and therefore nixes the heart, digestive and blood sugar-related health benefits of eating it.
Sneaky Stuff: packaged kombucha and kefirs
Real Deal: Live beneficial bacteria and yeast, plus a sugar source, are used to make these drinks. They are full of beneficial microorganisms and can be rich in vitamins and minerals. But in an effort to mask their naturally bitter tastes, some go into sugar overdrive. On average, each serving of most kombucha contains about 8 grams of sugar, and most kefirs have lactose bases so the yeast and bacteria in the kefir grains can feed off the milk’s natural sugars. When you add even more sugar, agave nectar or fruit flavorings, the drinks’ health benefits suffer.
Healthy Hints: Opt for kombucha brands with less than 3 grams of sugar per serving. If you’re buying a dairy-based kefir, try not to exceed 10 grams (the amount of sugar is higher because of the lactose). Los Angeles-based dietitian Ashley Koff, R.D., suggests tempering your kombucha intake with cultured (fermented) vegetables and recommends coconut water kefirs to best target digestive issues. “They’re typically lower in added sugar, provide a rich source of electrolytes and potassium, may not create mucus and are usually nonallergenic,” she says.
Sneaky Stuff: store-bought vegetable juices
Real Deal: One glass can equal two full servings of vegetables—nothing wrong with that, right? Not so fast. While these juices contain some veggies, many are heavy on starchy ones like beets and carrots, and lose points for fruit concentrates, sugar and salt, which are added for flavor. Plus, if it isn’t organic, you’re swigging a concentrated source of potentially pesticide-laden produce.
Healthy Hints: Make your own juice using a blender to keep as much fiber intact as possible. Combine a head of kale with 1 lemon, 1/8 cup freshly chopped ginger, 1 beet or apple and 4 to 6 stalks of celery (all should be organic). If you do go for bottled juice, look for the same quality ingredients you’d choose at home: organic vegetables, fruits and spices—with no fruit flavors, vegetable colorings, added sugar sources or unnecessary extras like high-fructose corn syrup and zinc oxide. Also, one serving shouldn’t exceed 15 grams of total carbs.
Sneaky Stuff: bottled green tea
Real Deal: “Not only do many bottled green teas have chemical additives, sugars and corn syrup, but the polyphenols in green tea are very fragile when exposed to heat, light and time,” says Reardon. “When green tea is packaged in clear bottles, the benefits can degrade very quickly unless it’s been in a light-and temperature-controlled environment.” And while you or your grocer may store it properly, there’s no accounting for the transportation conditions or the guy who left it on a loading dock in the sun.
Healthy Hints: To take the best advantage of green tea’s cancer-fighting, heart health-promoting, metabolism-boosting antioxidants, experts agree it’s best to brew it yourself. When you do so, be sure to drink it within 36 hours for primo benefits. Steep with lemon or orange slices to further preserve the cancer-fighting polyphenols (adding citrus to your tea boosts flavor and frees up more antioxidant compounds for the body to absorb after digestion). Add sparkling water and ginger, then chill for a refreshing treat. Reardon says it’s fine to buy sugar-free options in clear, preferably glass, bottles—but think of these as caffeinated beverages that don’t deliver as many health benefits.
Sneaky Stuff: gluten-free snacks
Real Deal: “A lot of us don’t realize that gluten-free treats are still treats—they aren’t health foods,” says Reardon. While organic, gluten-free breads and grains are an essential part of a healthy diet, gluten-free crackers, cookies and muffins aren’t necessarily good for you. This kind of gluten-free grub is often made from refined potato or rice flours that aren’t enriched and often have added fat, sugar and artificial flavorings, making it very important to check the ingredients before buying (just like you do with any snack food).
Healthy Hints: Skip the junk food and opt for gluten-free grains that also contain fiber, phytonutrients and B vitamins (like steel-cut oats, quinoa and brown rice). Better yet, think of the snack as an opportunity to increase your plant base by, say, choosing a dish of hummus and pea pods or other naturally gluten-free vegetables and legumes.
Sneaky Stuff: store-bought smoothies
Real Deal: These products often contain juices, syrups and purees that are loaded with calories and lack the nutrients of whole fruit. Plus, if it’s not organic, it could be full of pesticides. Many packaged smoothies are also made with unnecessary extra sugar, Reardon says, and include synthetic proteins and vitamins.
Healthy Hints: Choose organic options with no more than 15 grams of carbs and at least 7 grams of protein per serving. And before you toss one in your cart, remind yourself how easy it is to whip one up at home. Koff likes blending Sambazon Acai packs (plain) with hemp milk and half a banana to sweeten. Or toss Reardon’s favorite smoothie ingredients into your blender: ½ cup each of fresh kale, beet greens and baby spinach; ¾ cup mixed frozen organic berries; ½ cup frozen dark cherries; 1 to 2 tablespoons ground flaxseed; 1 scoop brown rice protein; ½ banana; 6 ice cubes; and 8 ounces plain organic Greek yogurt.
Sneaky Stuff: vegetable pastas, sticks and chips
Real Deal: These seemingly healthy carbs are often colored with beet or spinach juice, made primarily of wheat or rice flour and have virtually no vegetable content. Though some vegetable chips claim that one serving of them can count as a serving of vegetables, the fried varieties add, on average, 9 grams of fat and 125 more calories than a serving of most fresh vegetables, says Susan Hayman, R.D., a Louisville, Ky.-based dietitian.
Healthy Hints: If you’re craving crunch, snack on freeze-dried vegetables like wasabi peas or on raw crudities. Or make your own veggie chips or sticks by drizzling thin slices of fresh vegetables with olive oil and baking them at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 to 20 minutes. For a pasta alternative, stick to whole-wheat options. “It triples the amount of dietary fiber you get in most vegetable pastas,” says Hayman.
Sneaky Stuff: dried fruits
Real Deal: When fruit is dried, we still benefit from its fiber. But because the drying process removes a lot of water, the parched produce becomes a concentrated source of sugar. Added sugar or juice (common with fruits that are naturally more tart, such as cranberries) can equal even more calories in a smaller portion size as well. Dried fruit can be hard to digest, too; many brands add sulfur as a preserving agent, which can cause bloating and gas.
Healthy Hints: Opt for “no sugar added” varieties, or reach for pitted prunes and organic raisins, apples, apricots, tart cherries and mangoes, which are often dried without sugar since they don’t usually need it to reinforce their natural sweetness. (Organic options are not coated in sulfur.) And keep in mind that one dried apricot (two pieces) still equals one apricot. Even though it’s much smaller; portion out a reasonable serving so you don’t go overboard.
Sneaky Stuff: agave nectar
Real Deal: Though this sugar alternative may be lower on the glycemic index than, say, white sugar or honey, agave contains more fructose—a type of sugar found in fruit that the body doesn’t digest as easily as fruit. If consumed in high quantities, it may be stored more easily as fat in the body.
Healthy Hints: Because agave is sweeter than table sugar, you can use less. When choosing any sugar, go organic, and as often as you can, try to “borrow” sweetness from natural sources like sweet potatoes and berries in a recipe. In lieu of agave, Reardon likes blending ½ gram of stevia with ¼ teaspoon cane sugar—or using Sun Crystals, which mixes them for you.
Sourced, in part, from Natural Health Magazine, December/January 2012