When grabbing snacks with words like “fruit,” “veggie,” or “vitamin” in the name, it’s natural to assume these foods will offer us some level of nutrition. (Like, maybe at least some vitamin C… please?) The reality, though, is that a number of foods promoted to the public as healthy are really far from it. To make the best dietary choices, it’s helpful to get savvy about what’s actually doing your body good and what’s just marketing BS. We dug into food labels and chatted with Phoenix-based registered dietitian nutritionist Yaffi Lvovato get the lowdown on 10 supposedly healthy foods to view with a healthy dose of skepticism.
1. “Light” Products
In an effort to cut back on calories and fat, you might instinctively reach for foods calling themselves “light.” But these products can pose dietary problems far worse than their full-fat counterparts. “When fat is reduced or removed from a food, it must be replaced with another ingredient to make up the texture and flavor,” explains Lvova. “Oftentimes this is done with sugar or artificial fillers. When comparing full-fat sour cream to low-fat or fat-free, you’ll notice that the list of ingredients gets longer and longer. These are ingredients that are not found in nature, which your body doesn’t recognize.” When it comes to foods like foods like salad dressings, mayo, and sour cream, stick with portion-controlled amounts of the “regular” or “original” variety.
2. Flavored Yogurt
It’s true that yogurt offers a wealth of the friendly gut bacteria known as probiotics, which can help digestion and promote overall health. So plain (or lightly sweetened) yogurt does make an excellent choice for health-conscious snacking. But inside many flavored varieties lurk massive doses of added sugar. One container of Yoplait’s Original French Vanilla yogurt, for example, packs more sugar (19 grams) than a serving of Breyer’s Natural Vanilla ice cream (14 grams). Always read labels to check for sugar content.
3. Veggie Chips or Straws
Ever noshed on some veggie straws and called it a day for your healthy eating? (We confess, we have too.) Despite the “veggie” in their name — and the vibrant pictures of spinach or tomatoes on their packaging — the main ingredient in most veggie straws is potato starch. So while they may contain less fat than some potato chips, their ingredients really aren’t much different.
4. Meatless Meats
Not all meatless Mondays are created equal. To nail the texture of real meat, some vegetarian meat substitutes use questionable additives like TBHQ, a substance the food watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest encourages consumers to avoid. TBHQ has been associated with vision disturbances in humans and tumor growth in rats. Lvova also warns that highly processed soy is often the basis of fake meats. “While soy in its pure form — such as tofu, soy sauce, soy milk, or tamari — does not contribute to cancer risk, the highly processed soy protein isolate has been shown to increase the risk of certain types of cancer.” For a better vegetarian protein source, try nuts, tofu, and legumes.
5. Granola Bars
The word “granola” has come to symbolize all things hippy-dippy, natural, and healthy — so many people assume the food itself would be nothing but nourishing. That all depends, however, on what granola product you choose. According to a report by The New York Times, though 71 percent of the public believe granola bars to be healthy, only 28 percent of nutritionists agree. It’s pretty easy to tell that a chocolate-dipped bar is going to be more like a candy than a health food, but even less obviously Snickers-esque versions can be packed with sugar and fillers. Case in point: WalMart’s Great Value Sweet & Salty Almond Chewy Granola Bars, which contain hydrogenated oil (a known harbinger of dangerous trans fat) and high fructose corn syrup.
6. Fruit Leather
Ah, fruit leather, that beloved snack you can give to your kids and pretend you served them fruit. Until food manufacturers switch over to the FDA’s upcoming nutrition facts update, which requires a line item for “added sugars,” it’s hard to know how much sugar in fruit leather comes from actual fruit and how much has been added via processing. To ensure better nutrition from a fruity snack, try your hand at a DIY variety, or just, um, eat real fruit.
7. Vitamin Water
Vitamin Water has enjoyed a health halo since its introduction in 2000. But, as of 2016, the Coca-Cola company, which owns Vitamin Water, was ordered to remove health claims (such as “vitamins + water = all you need”) from the beverages’ labeling. With a 20-ounce bottle supplying 32 grams of sugar — more than you’d get in the same amount of a fountain drink — it’s not hard to see why. “It’s true that one serving provides 100 percent of your vitamin C for the day, but so do many fruits and vegetables,” says Lvova. “The other vitamins provided are poor quality, and only 10 to 15 percent at that. You can cover these nutrient needs with real food throughout the day, which is a much more efficient way to take in your nutrients.”
8. Dairy-Free Cheese
If you avoid dairy due to allergy, intolerance, or religious or ethical restrictions, dairy-free cheese can be a godsend for getting your fix of stretchy, melty goodness. For the rest of us, though, there’s no health-related reason to choose dairy-free cheese, since most of these products are highly processed and often contain refined oils, preservatives, and color additives. Besides, recent research reveals that eating real cheese daily could actually protect against cardiovascular disease.
9. Diet Soda
It’s “diet,” so it’s better than regular soda, right? Not necessarily. Studies have shown that drinking diet soda is associated with an increased risk of diabetes and metabolic syndrome, a complex of health issues that includes obesity, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar. This may be due to the artificial sweeteners used in diet soda, such as sucralose, aspartame, and saccharine. Though technically considered safe by the FDA, these sweeteners remain controversial for the way they affect the body’s metabolic processes.
10. High-Protein Snacks
“High protein” seems to be the latest marketing code for “healthy,” based on the concept that protein builds muscle. But does more of this macro actually make a food better for you? The Daily Value of protein for healthy adults is just 50 grams. And since, according to many experts, the average American gets more than enough protein in their daily diet, adding extra in the form of a high-protein cookie or bar isn’t necessarily helpful.