The New 'Healthy' Foods
4 rules for making smart choices
By Heather Hatfield
Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
Fruit instead of french fries? Organic pita chips in vending machines? Has the food industry gone health nuts, or is all of this just another example of clever marketing?
There are lots of welcome new options on grocery shelves and restaurant menus these days, say two nutrition experts who spoke with WebMD. But there are also plenty of foods out there that are just posing as healthy. It's not always easy to tell the difference.
"It takes a very discerning eye to cull through all the stuff on ingredient labels and make the right choice," says Susan Moores, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
So how can a consumer avoid falling prey to marketing magic? Here are four basic rules from our experts:
1. Go natural. "For real healthy, a food being as close to its natural state as possible is a good tip off," says Moores.
But just because the label says natural doesn't necessarily mean it is better. Look at the product with a critical eye. For example, apples are great, but are the skins on them? Is that healthy-looking baked item made from whole grains or from white, processed flour? And is it chock-full of sugars that add calories but few nutrients?
2. Read the fine print. "We can read the front of the label for the highlights, but know that the real story is on the back of the label: the ingredient listing, nutrition facts panel, fine print -- read them all," says Moores. For example, if you're buying tomato sauce and the first ingredient listed is water, indicating that it is the item used in greatest quantity in the product, look for another brand.
She recommends using the "5 and 20" rule for nutrients listed on the nutrition facts panel.
"If it contains less than 5% for a particular nutrient, it is considered low in that nutrient," she explains. "If it contains 20% or more, then it is considered an excellent source of the specific nutrient. The more listings above 5, the better the food."
3. The taste test. Of course, even the healthiest product is a waste of money if it doesn't taste good.
"Tasting is believing," says the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic "Recipe Doctor," Elaine Magee, MPH, RD. "You won't know if something is a suitable substitute until you try it and know if your family likes it."
For instance, Frito-Lay offers Baked Crunchy Cheetos, which, according to Magee, fall into the "tastes good" category.
"The ingredient label says it has 5 grams of fat per serving and 130 calories per ounce, which is a good improvement from the regular version, which has 10 grams of fat and 160 calories," Magee says. "However, not all of the newer foods will be winners."
4. Use common sense. Just because a food is low in fat and calories doesn't mean it's good for you.
"You have to ask -- what is the nutritional contribution of this item?" says Magee, author of Fry Light, Fry Right. "Ask yourself if you are getting any vitamins or minerals from the item? Is what you are eating contributing something other than just calories?
"Buyer beware, no matter what. The bottom line for any food company is selling you their product."
So who's selling foods with more nutrients or fewer calories these days? Here are just a few of the companies marketing products designed to offer better nutrition or help curb the country's obesity epidemic:
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