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Food Fakes: Which Foods Billed as Healthy Just Aren't?

By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, RD, MPH

Most anywhere you look, it’s easy to find plenty of healthful foods. But if there’s so much health food surrounding us, why is the obesity trend still on the upswing? There are lots of reasons, of course, but one issue may very well be the abundance of so-called health foods that are, well, not so healthy. There are so many, in fact, that it’s impossible to list them all—but here are a few of the biggest, and trickiest offenders…and why you should steer clear.

Sugar-free treats
You can find sugar-free versions of almost anything your sweet tooth desires, like cookies, cake, and candy. But don’t be fooled by the cloyingly sweet standbys: while sugar free foods do often have fewer calories, they can still pack plenty from other sources, like fat. So if you’re seeking sweet, go ahead and eat it—but stick with a small serving of the real sugar-sweetened version of whatever you’re craving. It’s more likely to be satisfying, plus, you won’t be tempted to over-eat sugar-free treats all the while thinking you’re in the clear because they are “diet” (and the calories still add up). If that’s not reason enough, consider this: many times the sweetening agents used in sugar free treats can have gastrointestinal side effects that, when eaten in excess, just aren’t so sweet. 

Diet soda
If you’re feeling smug because you don’t drink regular sodas, but you do chug the diet version, the joke is on you. University of Texas research found that diet soda drinkers had a 47 percent higher BMI than those that didn’t partake. It’s not clear the reasons why, but some researchers theorize that the artificial sweeteners may change your tastes, calibrating your taste buds to crave super-sweet (since artificial sweeteners can be several times sweeter than sugar) satisfaction. Thus, you may find yourself craving sweet (and calorie-dense) foods more regularly. If you really want a truly healthy drink, you’re better off hydrating with plain or seltzer water or skim milk.

Double-fiber bread
If whole-wheat bread is full of fiber, doubling the fiber would be even better, right? Not so fast. First, many of the breads that claim to be filled with fiber are not made with 100 percent whole wheat flour to begin with, so it’s important to read the label to find out if there’s refined flour inside. Plus, often times, in order to squeeze all that fiber into a small slice, many companies add isolated fibers (like inulin). While adding these sources of fiber to the products doesn’t make them unhealthy, there’s little proof that they can do what intact fibers with the bran can—like lower cholesterol and help regulate blood sugar. So, if you like the taste of these products, go ahead and double fiber, but just don’t expect double the health benefits.

Poultry burgers
At a burger joint, and thinking of your health, you order the turkey or chicken burger. Did you make the best choice? Maybe not. Not to knock all poultry burgers, because some can make a healthier choice, keep in mind that all are not created equal. If you’re making burgers at home, start with white meat ground from the breast, instead of those that include white and dark meat. You can always add a teaspoon or two of olive oil to keep burgers juicy without driving up the saturated fat, if you like. And if you’re ordering out, keep in mind that even if the burger is healthy, it may still be smothered in a rich sauce, topped with cheese and served with fries. So if you’re going to talk turkey (or chicken), just be sure you don’t gobble down extra fat and calories on the side.

Bet you thought keeping juice in the fridge ups the health-factor of your kitchen—but not always! Don’t get us wrong, juice can be a healthy choice—if it’s 100 percent juice, that is—but the problem is that it’s one of the most common nutrition stumbles. The sad fact is, most juices are not 100 percent fruit juice, meaning there are sweeteners, fillers and water added to the bottle. Plus, with any juice, you miss the fiber from eating the whole version. But fruit juices aren’t the only culprit of the confusion—the colorful array of vegetable juices lining the grocery shelves are guilty, too; don’t be fooled into thinking that a glass of salty vegetable juice will take the place of a full plate of a variety of veggies. So unless you’re in a real pinch, it’s much better to eat the whole fruit or veggie instead, which not only contains fiber to fill you up, but is a lot less confusing to choose, to boot.

Crackers and cookies “made with whole grain”
Nothing seems to excite the health-conscious more than a treat that’s been re-tooled into guiltless food; too bad that those healthy-sounding munchies are usually no better than the other snack foods they mirror. Those cheese-flavored crackers and chocolate chip cookies that have a small amount of whole grains added to the mix are still brimming with fat and calories you don’t need, and in most cases all they have is a little extra (and the emphasis is on little) whole-grain flour. If you’re looking for whole grains, get them from sources that really add up, and that don’t carry the unwanted extra baggage of fat and calories, like 100 percent whole-grain breads, pastas and cereals.

Dark-chocolate-covered dry fruit
If you haven’t noticed, the dry fruit aisle has expanded beyond raisins and apricots lately, and it’s burgeoning with more than just fruit. Thanks to claims about the health benefits of dark chocolate (and the jury is still out on how much can make a difference) many dried fruits are getting a dark cloak. What makes these little fruits tricky is that they can be found among the dry fruit—not the candy aisle, where they should be. As tempting as it would be to trust that dark chocolate covered fruit (even if it’s high in antioxidants) could be health food—it’s not. Adding chocolate adds saturated fat, calories and more sugar to something that already loaded with plenty of natural sweetness. You can still enjoy these finds—just make sure you’re thinking of them as candy, not fruit.

Flavored nuts
With more and more research heralding the virtues of nuts, it’s becoming increasingly clear they can legitimately be called health food. But add extra salt and fancy flavorings, and instantly those healthy nuts got from positive to poser. Now, you can find more than just plain old nuts—not just salted and roasted—but delicious sounding gourmet flavors right in the mainstream market. Problem is, even though health claims on nuts are legitimate (like their cholesterol-lowering power), that’s not accounting for the extra salt and flavors. And who needs to add extra calories and sugar to a food that’s already pretty calorie-dense? To make sure you’re not eating an imposter, stick to unsalted, raw or lightly salted varieties---and pass on the flavored and coated versions.

Beyond this list, you can uncover health food imposters by reading the label and sticking to the most minimally processed foods possible. And like the old saying goes, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!