In our search for health, we’ve developed an uncritical mythos around certain food choices. However, yesterday’s “healthy” food has a way of turning unhealthy rather quickly in the face of our need for convenience and the food industry’s greed for our dollar. It’s buyer beware and here are the top 10 “healthy” foods that have become anything but good for us and how to reclaim them.
#1 – Granola
This food has the potential to be healthy but very rarely is on account of all the added sugar. You might as well eat regular sugary cereal. Most granola includes either honey or molasses or some other sweetener as ingredients, and usually a lot when you read how many grams. Furthermore, if you add common favorite ingredients like chocolate chip pieces or dried fruit you’re adding in extra teaspoons of sugar. The main ingredient in those chips is sugar. Dried cranberries and other dried fruits are usually drenched in sugar.
For example, check out one of Target’s top 3 hits when I typed in granola: Bear Naked Soft Baked Granola Cocoa & Cashew Butter Soft Baked Granola. (I’m only using Target since it’s easy to navigate and link)
It’s advertised as gluten-free and with pepitas, sea salt and fair trade cocoa for $3.99. Sounds like a hit, right? Wrong. Here are the ingredients and I’ve bolded added sugars:
Whole grain oats, semi-sweet chocolate chunks*† (cane sugar*, chocolate*, cocoa butter*, soy lecithin*, vanilla extract*), invert cane syrup, rice crisps (rice flour, cane sugar, salt), cashew butter, expeller pressed sunflower oil, cashews, pepitas, whole oat flour, brown rice syrup, cane sugar, sea salt, ginger, rosemary extract for freshness.*Organic
How many times does some sort of sugar show up in this food??? You can have all the organic, fair trade and expeller pressed ingredients you want, it won’t make something loaded with sugar healthy.
Want actually healthy granola? Skip all the ones with chocolate, dried sweetened fruit, and added sugars – even the organic honey and organic maple sugar – unless you want an insulin shot afterward. Add in more seeds and nuts, preferably raw, and only include unsweetened fruit.
#2 – Yogurt
Similar to granola, yogurt wants to be healthy. Probiotics and other nutrition can be found in them. However, as soon as you skip over plain and grab the fruit or granola or any flavored yogurt, you start adding tons of sugar and preservatives into the mix. You might as well be heaping teaspoons of sugar on your cup.
Here is Target’s #2 hit for yogurt: Dannon Light and Fit Original Vanilla Flavored Greek Yogurt, advertised as 0% fat.
It’s typical for your flavored yogurts in terms of ingredients:
Cultured grade a non fat milk, water, fructose, contains less than 1% of modified food starch, natural and artificial flavors, sucralose, citric acid, potassium sorbate (to maintain freshness), acesulfame potassium, sodium citrate, active yogurt cultures l. bulgaricus & s. thermophilus.
It clocks in with 2 types of sugar and various artificial ingredients, some of which you might recognize if you have a chemistry degree. Acesulfame potassium is also an artificial sweetener to add to the other natural sugars found in this yogurt. It’s final sugar count is 11 grams per serving, or just under 3 teaspoons of sugar.
Let’s also check out one of the latest in a line of jazzed up yogurts: Chobani Flip Cookies & Cream Greek Yogurt. This popped up as a recommendation when I was looking at the Dannon Light above.
Ingredients: lowfat yogurt (cultured pasteurized nonfat milk, cream, live and active cultures: s. thermophilus, l. bulgaricus, l. acidophilus, bifidus and l. casei), evaporated cane sugar, water, cane sugar, wheat flour, cocoa, cocoa butter, vegetable oils (palm kernel, palm), skim milk, fruit pectin, salt, natural flavors, caramel color, sunflower lecithin, baking soda, lemon juice concentrate, locust bean gum, guar gum, vanilla extract.
This comes with 2 types of sugar and some additives but its sugar count is 21 grams per serving, or just over 5 teaspoons of sugar. With that much, you might as well open packets of straight sugar and swallow them.
Want healthy but need sweet? Buy plain and add real fruit, nuts or oats. That will be far more nutritious than any premade cup you could ever hope to pick up.
#3 – Wheat Bread
People often mistakenly assume wheat bread means they are getting servings of whole grains and fiber when they pick up a loaf. Unfortunately, wheat bread is usually highly processed, with tons of additives and sugar. Check out the ingredients on most loaves for the seemingly unending list of chemical additives. On top of that, the flour is usually refined rather than whole. Even many whole breads are often a mix of whole and refined flours, providing little of the nutrition they want you to believe they contain. There’s a lot of misleading advertising in the packaging.
Here’s the top hit for my search for wheat bread: Oroweat 100% Whole Wheat Bread, advertised as a whole grain bread and also containing no high fructose corn syrup. Price: $3.69.
Ingredients: whole wheat flour, water, sugar, wheat gluten, raisin juice concentrate, soybean oil, yeast, cultured wheat flour, molasses, salt, soy lecithin, grain vinegar, citric acid, soy, whey.
Looking at this bread, we see 3 types of added sugars, plus a cultured wheat flour in addition to the whole wheat. So you’re not actually getting a truly whole grain bread despite what the advertising would have you think. You’re also getting extra gluten, since wheat naturally contains it and the manufacturers added more on top of that.
Let’s check out a generic wheat bread for those who don’t like the price point of the Oroweat: Market Pantry’s Wheat Sandwich Bread. It’s listed as $1.19.
Ingredients: enriched bleached flour [wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamin mononitrate (vitamin b1), riboflavin (vitamin b2), folic acid], water, whole grain (whole wheat flour, rolled wheat), high fructose corn syrup, yeast. contains 2% or less of each of the following: wheat gluten, soybean oil, wheat bran, molasses, malted barley flour, salt, wheat germ, dough conditioners (may contain one or more of the following: mono- and diglycerides, ethoxylated mono- and diglycerides, sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium peroxide, datem, ascorbic acid, azodicarbonamide, enzymes), calcium propionate (preservative), distilled vinegar, yeast nutrients (monocalcium phosphate, calcium sulfate, ammonium sulfate), corn starch, caramel color, soy lecithin, milk, soy flour.
This little bread comes with a lot of additives, as well as high fructose corn syrup and molasses as its added sugar. It has various flours, all bleached or processed. I can’t translate the various chemistry terms, but we have extra gluten along with that mouthful of additives. It’s fortified but most bleached flour is (see #7 – Fortified Foods below). If unenriched, bleached or processed flour provides little, if any, nutrition on its own.
These are just two examples of how bread manufacturers manipulate advertising and sneak in all sorts of ingredients your great-grandparents never saw when baking their bread. As if this wasn’t bad enough, wheat bread will spike your blood sugar as much as white bread and has a higher glycemic load than table sugar, which means your blood sugar will react as if you’re consuming a sugary snack. Yep, that’s right. So if you’re trying to watch your blood sugar and prevent diabetes, pass on the wheat bread. And that’s not even touching its gluten issues.
For true health, go light on the breads and opt for true whole grains like whole grain rice, oats, quinoa, buckwheat and others. They’re full of nutrients so they don’t need to be fortified. Plus they contain fiber, something we rarely get in our flour-heavy diets.
#4 – Peanut Butter
We all need to be eating more nuts and seeds. Aside from the fact that peanuts are a legume – we need to be eating more of those too – they actually contain a great deal of nutrition for their size. The problem is that peanut butter generally comes loaded with sugar and other additives.
Here’s a favorite peanut butter anyone will recognize: Jif Creamy Peanut Butter.
Ingredients: made from roasted peanuts and sugar, contains 2% or less of: molasses, fully hydrogenated vegetable oils (rapeseed and soybean), mono and diglycerides, salt.
A serving size is 2 tablespoons of peanut butter but in that you get 3 grams of sugar, or just under a teaspoon of sugar. Sugar is a major ingredient here, with a little molasses thrown in as a seeming afterthought. A 16 oz. jar will cost you $2.29. But don’t be fooled by the healthier sounding Simply Balanced Organic No Stir Creamy Peanut Butter on the shelf next to it for $3.99.
Ingredients: dry roasted organic peanuts, organic palm oil, organic cane sugar, sea salt.
Sure, it has a few less additives with funny chemical names and calls its sugar “organic cane sugar”, but it still has unneeded sugar, oil and salt. It’s basically the same as Jif, just a buck 70 more.
Want to eat healthy but need some sweet? Buy peanut butter that’s just peanuts and a little salt and spread it on fruit like apples or pears. You’ll get a wonderful treat that’s really good for you. Or just snack on unsalted peanuts or a nut and seed mix. Toss in unsweetened raisins for a sweet kick.
#5 – Fruit Cups
You might detect a pattern forming. As with most others on this list, the downfall of the fruit cup comes from the added sugar from the syrups it’s preserved in or other added ingredients.
Here’s the generic brand by Market Pantry: Mandarin Oranges Fruit Cup, advertised as “packed in light syrup”.
Ingredients: mandarin oranges, water, sugar, ascorbic acid (to preserve color), citric acid.
The “light syrup” must mean sugar and water mixed together, adding into a final total of 15 grams of sugar per cup, or almost 4 full teaspoons of sugar.
Mandarin oranges and most fruit are already sweet enough without adding more teaspoons of sugar and preservatives to them. Stick with them in their whole foods glory, not packed in juice, syrup or other sugars.
#6 – Applesauce
Yep, this one usually comes packed with sugar. Doesn’t matter if it’s high fructose corn syrup, sugar, honey, molasses or anything else. You’ll still need an insulin shot for most brands.
For instance, Mott’s Applesauce contains: apples, high fructose corn syrup, water, ascorbic acid (vitamin c) and clocks in at 22 grams of sugar per cup or 5.5 teaspoons of sugar.
Just eat an apple instead.
#7 – Fortified Foods
These days everything seems to boast about its vitamin and mineral count. When you look closer, many times the nutrition has been added via fortification rather than stemming from the healthiness of the underlying food. This basically means the vitamin or mineral was made in the lab and added into the product.
Wheat flour is a major food that comes fortified. We consume 138 pounds per capita of wheat a year. The US started fortifying its flour products in 1941 since processed flour was a staple in the population even though it contains basically nothing nutrition-wise, just calories. This helped get essential mincronutrients into our diets as a public health service. Almost 95 percent of the white flour in the United States is enriched with iron and four of the B vitamins: thiamin, niacin, riboflavin and folic acid (which started in 1998). But it’s only 5 vitamins and minerals that get enriched. Our bodies need far more than those to work in optimal condition. Meanwhile the foods advertising what their makers have been pressured by regulators to carry are still the same low nutrition foods that usually offer your body nothing in the way of health and might actually be sabotaging it. Processed flour is just one low quality product commonly fortified.
Here are Kellogg’s Eggo Homestyle Waffles for example. They’re been enriched.
Ingredients: enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, vitamin b1 [thiamin mononitrate], vitamin b2 [riboflavin], folic acid), water, vegetable oil (soybean, palm and/or canola), eggs, leavening (baking soda, sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate), contains 2% or less of sugar, salt, whey, soy lecithin, beta-carotene for color. vitamins and minerals: calcium carbonate, reduced iron, vitamin a palmitate, vitamin b6 (pyridoxine hydrochloride), vitamin b12.
Basically they’ve taken a nutrient-lacking vehicle that will spike your blood sugar and dumped manufactured vitamins and minerals all over it (none meeting your daily recommended intake though), plus some additives and preservatives. This makes it sound healthy but it’s divorced from the natural way these vitamins and minerals appear in real food, alongside everything else healthy about that whole food. It’s not just the vitamin and minerals in the real food that’s magical, else we could all live on vitamin pills.
Don’t buy the packaging hype. When it comes to all those fortified pastas, breads, waffles, pancakes, drinks, etc., be aware that most contain just a handful of vitamins and minerals made in a lab to replicate only a fraction of what’s found naturally in real food. You’d be better off eating real food and reaping all the added health that comes with the fiber, antioxidants, live enzymes, more vitamin and mineral content, and everything else. If you can’t even do that, know you’d be better served by taking a multivitamin than eating those “fortified” foods – you would at least get a wider variety of vitamins and minerals and usually at the daily recommended levels. You would also by-pass the blood sugar spikes that pave the way for diabetes and a host of other modern health ills.
#8 – Sports Drinks, Flavored Fruit Drinks
The beverage industry is out to make money. Never forget that goal. Many of its products seem healthy. Take sports drinks like Powerade: Mountain Berry Blast Sports Drink, advertising its advanced electrolyte system and B vitamins to help you recover after a workout.
Ingredients: water, high fructose corn syrup, less than 0.5% of: citric acid, salt and magnesium chloride and calcium chloride and mono-potassium phosphate (electrolyte sources), natural flavors, modified food starch, calcium disodium edta (to protect color), medium chain triglycerides, sucrose acetate isobutyrate, vitamin b3 (niacinamide), vitamin b6 (pyridoxine hydrochloride), vitamin b12, blue 1.
This is basically sugar water, clocking in at 20 grams per serving or 5 teaspoons of sugar. Plus you’ll get a nice helping of various salts, strange chemical additives and some blue food coloring in addition to 15% of your daily recommended intake of 3 B vitamins. Personally, I see “natural flavors” as an ingredient, like with this one, and automatically put the item back on the shelf as low quality junk. As if this didn’t have enough to ward me off already.
Some drinks are fairly innocuous though. Take Bai, for example, a delicious, flavored water drink that sports fruit on most of its packaging. Turn over the label and read the ingredients and you’ll see it has a lot going on for a flavored water. Here’s Bai Bubbles Jamaica Blood Orange Water. It’s calling itself a “sparkling antioxidant infusion” and claims no artificial sweeteners. Well, let’s see.
Ingredients: filtered carbonated water, erythritol, citric acid, clarified orange juice concentrate, natural flavors, coffeefruit extract, white tea extract, stevia leaf extract, ascorbic acid (vitamin c), malic acid, vegetable juice concentrate and beta carotene (for color), sodium citrate.
In this list we see sugar substitutes like erythritol and stevia, along with a host of other additives, including natural flavors (which aren’t the least natural). While stevia might be considered a natural sweetener, erythriol is a type of sugar alochol and processed. Maybe since it’s a sugar alcohol it isn’t considered artificial and so the “no artificial sweeteners” isn’t the least misleading? In the meantime, sweeteners like sugar alcohol are considered generally safe for consumption by the FDA, which recommends moderate consumption of them. Additionally, the drink is sweetened by the orange juice concentrate and probably the vegetable juice concentrate. I’m not exactly sure where all the advertised antioxidents come in. Mabye some from the acids and in the juice? Of course, some of these do double duty as preservatives.
This is just one example of a flavored water that goes above and beyond in ingredients and misleading packaging, but if you’re downing 5 sodas a day, drinking Bai or other similarly flavored waters would definitely be an improvement.
Powerade and Bai are just two examples of drinks on various ends of a spectrum of what might seem like healthy drink choices to some people. Unfortunately, most of these beverages increasingly crowding the “healthy” food space are packed with added sugar of some sort or other sweeteners with known heath risks like aspartame. They may also include other additives and substances that make them just another junk beverage masquerading as nutritious.
Want tasty and healthy? You could drink more water or switch to green tea. Need flavor? Buy carbonated water and add a squeeze of lime or lemon. Buy 100% real fruit juice and mix it in. You can freeze and store these too for later and skip all the dubious additives and chemicals in the process.
#9 – Gluten-Free Processed Food
We love our snacks and processed foods. Unfortunately, there is no free lunch. The “gluten-free” aisle in most stores is mostly junk food – chips, candy, snacks and other highly processed food that has no nutritive value. It just happens to not contain that little protein found in wheat, rye and barley called gluten. That box of gluten-free cookies is still just as unhealthy.
For example, check out Tate’s Bake Shop Gluten-Free Chocolate Chip Cookies. At $4.99, this bakery-esque dessert comes with around 7 cookies. How do they stack up?
Ingredients: semi-sweet chocolate chips (sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, milk fat, soy lecithin [an emulsifier], vanilla, natural flavor), rice flour, butter, cane sugar, brown cane sugar, eggs, vanilla extract, baking soda, salt, and xanthan gum
For this GF cookie, it’s pretty much the same ingredients you would find in any chocolate chip cookie recipe, but with rice flour instead of wheat flour. It contains sugar, cane sugar, and brown cane sugar, as if these added sugars are somehow special. It also still contains natural flavors and emulsiers, and surprisingly contains only a few less additives than your standard bag of $3.59 Chewy Chips Ahoy. Even the sugar per serving is roughly the same at 11 g and 12 g respectively, or just at 3 teaspoons. So in the end, those Tate’s Cookies are still processed junk food but with a GF label.
#10 – Low Sodium, No Salt Added or Sugar-Free Foods
When manufacturers put “low sodium” or “no salt added” on their labels, check the ingredients. Oftentimes you’ll find calcium chloride or potassium chloride listed rather than “salt”. Unfortunately, these are both salts and will impact your health in similarly bad ways. When canning or processing foods, most foods require a preservative. The two biggest for a variety of reasons are salt and sugar. So watch out about salt – the manufacturer won’t list sodium chloride (aka table salt), which is only one type of salt, but they’ll list the others like those above that most people don’t realize are salts.
Here’s just one example from Hunt’s 100% Natural No Salt Added Diced Tomatoes. And it’s “heart healthy,” whatever that means.
Ingredients: diced tomatoes, tomato juice, less than 2% of: citric acid, calcium chloride.
Just to be clear, calcium chloride, which is listed here as an ingredient, is a type of salt and has its health impacts akin to sodium chloride. Makes that “no salt added” label look a bit suspicious now doesn’t it? This is just one example found in the “low sodium” or “no salt added” products. Read your labels.
Similarly, the sugar-free label usually means the manufacturer has used a different sweetener, which comes with its own problems, or added more substances to make up for the sugar. Sugar provides not just taste but texture and color to many foods. If it isn’t used, the industry will typically use a host of other chemicals to achieve the semblance of sugar. That means more weird ingredients in your food.
Let’s go back to fruit cups, #5 on our list. Here is what Del Monte does with its No Sugar Added Mandarin Orange fruit cup.
Ingredients: mandarin oranges, water, sorbitol, ascorbic acid (to protect color), acesulfame potassium, sucralose, cellulose, citric acid.
On its packaging it says “in water” and “artificially sweetened” so we know it will have at least one artificial sweetener. This one has several: sorbitol, acesulfame potassium, and sucralose. As an FYI, acesulfame potassium is 200 times sweeter than sugar and comes with various negative health claims, including disrupting blood sugar regulation.
With all these artificial sweeteners and their possible health risks, controversial or not, isn’t it just better to eat the fruit whole rather than scoop it out of some sort of chemical bath concocted to make it sugar free?
These are just ten examples of common foods that fall under the “healthy” category but which can oftentimes be anything but good for us. Always, always read the ingredients – even on the foods you think are healthy, even in the “organic” section or the “gluten-free” aisle.
There’s no substitute for real food either. Shop fresh as often as possible. Go for whole foods like real whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, and fruits and vegetables. The fresher and less processed they are, the better your health will be. When it comes to optimizing your body and mind, nothing beats eating a mostly whole foods diet. It’s what our species naturally ate until about a hundred years ago. Modern food is manufactured food, convenient and full of chemicals to preserve it longer in transit and on the shelf, let alone to grab our tastebuds.
Keep all this in mind when you shop and take back your health by not letting the marketing hype fool you.
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