Not-So-Healthy 'Health' Foods

Some foods you think are good for you may not be all they seem

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

No cholesterol, no trans fat, no added sugar, multigrain, all natural, organic? These are just some of the phrases that seem to shout "healthy food" from the labels of our favorite brands.

But, experts say, unhealthy choices lurk among even the most healthy-seeming foods.

"Many people assume that if something has a healthy buzzword on the label, or even that if it's sold in a health food store, that it's automatically a healthy food, but that is not always the case," says Samantha Heller, MS, RD, senior clinical nutritionist at New York University School of Medicine.

A case in point, she says, is granola.

"Granola got a reputation as a health food in the 1960s, because it was in fact, healthier than the heavily sugared, frosted cereals that were being sold," Heller tells WebMD. "But by today's standards, in terms of fats and just sheer calories, granola is not your healthiest choice."

The same is true of most cereal bars, as well as many energy bars and drinks, experts say.

"I think one of the biggest misconceptions people have about healthy eating is in thinking these so-called cereal or energy bars and drinks are a good choice, and most are definitely not," says Lona Sandon, MEd, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

While they may contain a miniscule amount of vitamins, and sometimes even potentially helpful herbs, Sandon says most are so loaded with sugar and fat that the bad outweighs the good.

"In many instances, you may as well eat a candy bar for all the nutrition you are getting from these products," Sandon tells WebMD.

Nutritionist Miriam Pappo Klein, MS, RD, agrees: "The high energy in many of these products comes from the fact that they are loaded with calories. There's no magic here; it's just high fat and high sugar," says Klein, a clinical nutrition manager at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y.

Hidden Diet Hazards

A bowl of whole-wheat cereal; a turkey burger; banana chips; a "healthy" frozen dinner; a handful of peanuts. On the surface, that seems like a pretty healthy menu for the day.

But nutritionists say hidden nutritional dangers can be lurking even in these seemingly healthy foods.

"The breakfast cereals and frozen dinners can be loaded with sodium and sugar, the turkey burger loaded with fat, and peanuts coated with honey and sugar," says Sandon. "It's very easy to make otherwise healthy foods unhealthy."

For example, the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recently found that a popular brand of banana chips not only had added sugar, but were deep-fried in saturated oil, giving them 8 grams of fat per serving -- about the same as a fast-food burger.

While even marginally health-conscious shoppers know that packaged lunch meats and canned soups can be laden with sodium, how many of us would think to check the label on our breakfast cereal? Some cereals, Heller says, contain as much as 500 milligrams of sodium per serving.

Equally surprising is how much fat, sugar, or sodium may be lurking in your turkey meal.

"Some ground turkey can have a higher percentage of fat than extra-lean ground beef," says Sandon, while many raw turkey breasts are injected with "flavor enhancers," which loads them with sugar and salt.

"Come Thanksgiving, you should definitely read those turkey labels as well as asking your butcher for fat content on all ground meats before you buy," she says.

Label Me Confused

Of course, reading labels is important whenever you're trying to make healthy food choices. But if you're only reading the front of the package, you could still get into trouble.

According to the CSPI, a good example of why this is true can be found in certain brands of "enhanced water" (water with added vitamins and herbs). According to CSPI research, at least some of these brands also add sugar -- taking a glass of water from zero calories to 125 calories.

Another healthy dose of confusion, say experts, can come from some foods labeled "light," "all natural," or even "organic."

"Most people don't realize that 'light' olive oil, for example, isn't lower in calories or fat -- it's just lighter in color and taste," says Klein. Potato chips labeled "all natural" she says, are nothing more than potato chips without the preservatives; they're still loaded with fat and sodium.

Many manufacturers use the front label to tout a product's most healthy attributes. Unfortunately, that doesn't always mean the food is a healthy choice.

For example, consider products that boast "no cholesterol."

"At first glance you think, 'Wow, this has no cholesterol, it must be good for me,'" says Klein. "But unless you stop to read the back label, you might not realize that it could also be loaded with fat, steeped in sodium or sugar, and generally high in calories, and not very good for you at all."