The colors look vibrant: green, red, and orange among the juicy fruits that show up on the food package. Chunky nuts are part of the mix with golden honey melting over the delicious fruit mix. Along with the mouth-watering image, it reads: “Made with whole grains and real fruit.” You are quite certain this is one of the healthiest snacks: a fruit-cereal bar.
Welcome to the world of healthy food impostors. “A food imposter is one that, at first glance, looks to be healthy and nutritious because of misleading labeling, packaging, or marketing, but upon closer inspection of the nutrition label and ingredients panel, is actually not,” says nutritionist Rania Batayneh, MPH author of the forthcoming book The One One One Diet, www.EssentialNutritionForYou.com.
No wonder you find it tough to lose or maintain weight even though you stick to “healthy” items like cereal, yogurt, and juice among others. Food impostors are everywhere and you need to notice their disguises in order to avoid them. Here are what many experts believe are the top 5 impostors, how they deceive, and how to make smarter choices.
1. Yogurts and frozen yogurts
Why? Having your daily dose of probiotics—live and active cultures feed the good gut bacteria that has been linked to many health benefits—has became highly advised by experts due to the fat, sugar and other dietary excess that take a toll in the balance of the gut flora. “But often these yogurts are packed with sugar, either in the form of a goopy, syrupy fruit mixture or just sugar itself,” says Batayneh. “Probiotics might be healthy, but eating them with tons of sugar negates their health benefit.”
What to buy? The simpler, the better: plain Greek yogurt. Spice it up with a sprinkle of fruit, almonds, cinnamon and a touch of honey. Beware that plain yogurt still contains natural sugar (lactose), which provides 10-13g of sugar per serving. The problem is when the per serving jumps to 26-30g of sugar, says Carlucci. What about the non-fat versions? Batayneh points out that when this fat is removed, more sugar is added to make up for the loss of flavor and texture. Likewise, avoid tempting food additions such as granola, dried fruit or yogurt-covered pretzels, which can add hundreds of sugar and fat.
Why? Cereals always have been a go-to food when managing weight as it helps to ensure you eat breakfast (a must for successful weight loss) even when you are rushed in the morning. This was good when cereals were just whole oats, but nowadays, cereals can be a calorie bombshell with added chocolate, sugary dried fruits, among other ingredients that make this otherwise healthy breakfast into a decadent dessert.
It gets worse when the package is stamped as “whole grain.” But can you trust this? Not always. This is because the Whole Grain Councils have two stamps: The 100% Stamp indicates that ALL ingredients are whole grains and provide a minimum of 16g of whole grains per labeled serving. The Basic Stamp indicates the product may contain extra bran, germ, or refined floor and a minimum of 8g of whole grains per serving.
Why does the difference between the two stamps matter? It turns out that the variation is not just the fact you get less whole grains per serving, but a study shows that it seems if all ingredients are NOT 100% whole grains, the food may have more sugar and calories per serving than without the stamp. So read the ingredients and make sure they are all 100% whole grains and that there’re no sugars added.
On the sugar added department, Batayneh advises to make sure any added fruit is “real” fruit. “If you look in the ingredients label, you’ll see that those blueberries are actually made of sugar, dextrose, soybean oil, and dried blueberries.”
What to buy? Unless the first ingredient is 100% whole grain, has less than 200 calories per serving, 8g of sugar and at least 4g of fiber then don’t buy it, says Kristen Carlucci, RDN, Nutrition Expert for Pitney Bowes Inc. Add real fresh fruit yourself. Want more protein? Add some chia seeds, walnuts, or Greek yogurt.
3. Soy prepackaged foods
Why? You don’t have to throw away the soymilk in your fridge. But consider doing so if the food is made with soy. You’ll be surprised how many food products from bread to cereal to ready-to-go meals contain soy.
“Foods made with soy, like vegetarian or fake “meats,” protein bars, tempeh, diet foods, and bread, are highly processed and often contain additives and sodium. Plus over 90% of the soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified, which has been linked with a number of disorders and health consequences like impaired fertility and allergies,” says Batayneh.
What to buy? There are great alternatives for vegans or vegetarians like beans, quinoa, nuts and seeds. You can think about making veggie burgers infused with quinoa and black beans. As for bars, look for other sources like pea or rice protein.
4. Waters, teas, and juices
Why? In the past, supermarket shelves for juices, waters, and teas were reserved to a small section of the giant soda aisle. Today, there are more hybrid products like infused waters, cleansing juices, and enhanced teas, which all look and sell like a new generation of healthy beverages.
“Functional beverages have recently gained popularity; they include sports and performance drinks, energy drinks, bottled teas, and enhanced water. These beverages often come with some sort of health claim like accelerated weight loss, rejuvenation, and overall wellness, but their ingredients are often not backed up by scientific studies,” says Betayneh.
What to do? First, don’t drink your calories suggests Carlucci, and opt for whole fruit instead of the juice. You’ll get more fiber, which can help you feel fuller longer. If plain water is tough to swallow, add your own natural flavors with cucumber, lemon wedges, orange slices, or even few mint leaves, says Betayneh.
5. Foods with claims such as: organic, gluten free, high in omega 3s and fiber, carb control, portion control, more protein than an egg, etc.
Why? Research continues to show that we eat MORE of the foods we perceive to be healthy. Many of today’s popular food claims, such as organic, gluten free, high in omega 3s and fiber, carb control, portion control, etc., draws the attention of consumers and distracts them from checking to see if these are truly healthy option, says Carlucci.
“But the term organic has no effect on a product’s calorie, fat, or sugar content, and a product with carb control slapped on the packaging could be packed with processed ingredients and additives,” says Batayneh. “Products claiming that they have ‘more protein than an egg’ aren’t any better. They may, indeed, have more protein than an egg, but if it’s processed, low-quality protein, it won’t impart the same health benefits.”
What to do? Don’t buy anything based on food package claims. Read the ingredients carefully and follow the rule: the fewer ingredients and the easier to pronounce—are they familiar to you? Do you find them in real food?—the better.
More often than not, foods that are actually organic, gluten free, high in omega-3s, etc. don’t even have a package to label. They are whole foods like fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, and nuts, says Betayneh.