How savvy are you when it comes to choosing healthy foods? You probably think you can easily tell the difference between a healthy food and an unhealthy one.
No so fast. You could be putting your health in jeopardy if you’re falling for sneaky labeling ploys.
Even the most experienced consumer can be lulled into complacency if they depend on the front of the package to mirror the food’s nutritional value. A good example: cold cereal. Although the front panel of a box of cereal may prominently display a serene field of wheat, the first ingredient may actually be sugar. In fact, the cereal may not contain any whole grain at all.
A lot of well-intentioned shoppers are lured in by shrewd marketing. Food makers tend to churn out products seemingly linked to the latest diet trend or fad. But are they indeed healthy? Or are they merely hype?
It’s quiz time. Ready to test your knowledge?
A turkey burger is always a better choice than a beef hamburger.
False! Ground turkey often contains turkey skin and turkey skin is high in saturated fat. If you’re grilling at home, buy skin-free ground turkey. You’re fairly safe with ground turkey breast. But lean beef, chicken, fish or a veggie burger are great choices, too. Check out Hardee’s menu. When searching for a fast food sandwich, the Charbroiled Cod Fish Sandwich, Original Turkey Burger, and Small Hamburger are all similar in calories, fat and sodium.
When shopping for breads, crackers and cereals, always choose products labeled “multi-grain.”
Nope! “Multi-grain” does not necessarily mean “whole grain.” It only means that the product contains an undefined amount of different types of grains. Prominently displayed on my “wall of shame” is Pringles Multigrain Original. The crisps contain no whole grains. The first – and therefore most plentiful – ingredient is corn flour. Next ingredient is vegetable oil, and then dried potatoes, rice flour, and so on. A better choice in a cracker is Triscuits. The first ingredient is whole grain soft white wheat. The “Hint of Salt” variety has only 50mg of sodium per serving, making it a truly healthy cracker. Pringles, meanwhile, have almost triple the sodium in one serving. When you choose foods labeled “100% whole grain” you get all the nutrients, including vitamin E, magnesium and fiber.
Buying foods labeled “natural” is a good way to ensure that you’re eating healthy.
You wish! According to the Food & Drug Administration, the "natural" claim means that the food does not contain any artificial ingredients, coloring ingredients, or chemical preservatives. In the case of meat and poultry, the food is minimally processed. But the term “naturally raised” doesn’t count for much. The animal may have been raised on a factory farm and in a cage – and may never have had access to the outdoors. A can of "100% Natural Tea" usually contains filtered water, high fructose corn syrup and lemon flavoring. How natural is that? My “wall of shame” has a special place for “natural fruit snacks” that are marketed to kids (think Strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups). The front of the package says, “Made with real fruit.” Since they’re labeled “strawberry” you’d think the first ingredient would be strawberries? NOPE! No strawberries. Check it out. The ingredients, listed from most to least, list pears from concentrate, corn syrup, dried corn syrup, and sugar. Then comes partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil (that’s trans fat), followed by a litany of artificial preservatives, flavors and colors. There are NO STRAWBERRIES. Follow the asterisk from the front of the box, where it says “Made With Real Fruit*” to the bottom of the ingredient list, where it says, “*These fruit flavored snacks are made with pear concentrate… They are not intended to replace fruit in the diet.” In other words, these “natural fruit snacks” are candy.
The healthiest yogurts are organic.
Wrong again! The label term “organic” – much like “natural” – often carries a “halo effect.” Consumers often think that it’s healthier and more wholesome. And that may be true – but not always. Organic yogurt is made from milk from grass-fed cows, and contains healthy bacteria, calcium, protein and other healthy nutrients. Organic means that the cows won’t be fed antibiotics or GMO grains, and many consumers think it’s worth the higher price. There are so many unhealthy yogurts on the market – and they’re filled with additives, thickeners (carrageenan), artificial colors and flavors, and sugar (in a myriad of forms). Sadly, many of these are marketed straight to kids. They come in cool tubes, or maybe in “fruity” drinks. Some have “natural sugars” while others contain artificial sweeteners.
But, surprise… organic brands are full of added sugar, too!
All added sugars – whether syrup, honey, cane sugar or white, maple syrup, or agave nectar – have approximately 16-20 calories per teaspoon, and contribute more calories than nutrients. Plain, low-fat or nonfat yogurt is such a healthy food because it's a delicious low fat source of calcium, vitamin D and magnesium and protein. But consumers who are distracted by words like "organic" and "natural" tend to ignore the ingredients.
Yogurt should have two ingredients: milk and live cultures. Stay wholesome by staying simple. That goes for kids' yogurts, too.
Read beyond the packaging and make it your mission to stay ahead of the marketing.
So how did you score?
Susan Burke March is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, who as chief nutritionist for eDiets promotes the dietary health and wellbeing of consumers worldwide.