Food Labels: Not-So-Healthy 'Health' Foods? (cont.)

Klein tells WebMD it also easy to jump to the wrong conclusion about foods labeled "low fat," many of which are high in both sugar and calories. Another potential deceiver: Foods labeled "multigrain" or "seven grain."

"Multigrain or seven grain does not mean whole grain, so you're not getting the fiber you think you are," Klein says. Unless the label says "whole grain," it's not the healthiest choice, she says

Too Much Of a Good Thing?

Labels that tout their products as "trans fat-free" may also lead us astray, experts say. "The issue here is that any food in which a single serving contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat is entitled to be called trans fat-free," says Heller, "but if you eat enough of those foods in a given day, you are in real danger of hitting a truly unhealthy level of this ingredient."

While no one has even established an upper limit for unhealthy trans fats in our diets, the general thinking is that anything over 2 grams a day is cause for alarm. And just four servings of a "trans fat-free" food containing 0.5 grams can get you to that limit.

The way to get around it says Heller, is to look for "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" oils in the ingredient list -- a sign that a product contains some trans fat, regardless of what's on the front label.

Even if your food choice is a totally healthy one, sometimes Sandon says there can be simply "too much of a good thing." She cites fruit juices as an example.

"If you're drinking 100% orange juice, you think you're doing something great for your body by getting a lot of vitamin C, but your body can only absorb so much and beyond that you're just loading up on excess calories," says Sandon.

If you want to ensure you're eating healthfully, don't just read the front product label. Flip it over and read both the ingredient list and the nutrition label, and pay attention to serving size. Then prioritize each food according to your own health concerns.

Says Klein: "There is no one perfect 'health' food for every person, so look for the foods that have the most benefits for your specific health concerns."

10 Foods That Can Fool You

While good food choices may vary from person to person, the experts we talked to help compile a list of some of the potentially unhealthiest "healthy" foods. Of course, in each category there are most likely some individual products that are good. Always check labels to find the best of the lot.

  • Packaged cereals. Check for excess sugar and sodium, and a lack of fiber.
  • Multigrain or seven-grain products. Unless the label says "whole grain," you're not getting full benefits.
  • Deli foods. Even "fresh" turkey or chicken breast can be loaded with sodium, while salads are frequently made with high-fat mayonnaise and other unhealthy oils.
  • High-energy bars and drinks. In many instances, the "high energy" claims come from the high level of calories -- most from sugar and fat.
  • Cereal bars. Many contain no fiber, lots of sugar, and substantial fat.
  • Low-fat or no-fat dairy products that replace fat with fillers. Fillers can jack up carbohydrate loads and increase sugar content, which can be a problem for some folks.
  • Granola bars or cereal. Many contain saturated fats (from ingredients like coconut), sodium as a preservative, and lots of sugar.
  • Trail mix. Containing things like chocolate chips and sugared fruit, most types weigh in at whopping 190 calories for a couple of ounces, and won't keep you full for very long.
  • "Trans fat-free" cookies, crackers, snack chips, and baked goods. Check portion sizes and look for hydrogenated oils on the ingredient panel.
  • Soy milk, chocolate-covered soy nuts, soy bars. The buzzword here is soy, which can indeed be healthy. But many of these products also contain lots of sugar and fat.

Originally Published Sept. 30, 2005.
Medically updated Oct. 9, 2006.

SOURCES: Center for Science in the Public Interest, Nutrition Action Newsletter, April 2002. Samantha Heller, MS, RD, senior clinical nutritionist, NYU Medical Center, New York. Lorna Sandon, MEd, RD, assistant professor/admissions counselor, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas; spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association; Miriam Pappo Klein, MS, RD, clinical nutrition manager, Montefiore Medical Center, Bronx, N.Y.

©2006 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

Last Editorial Review: 10/9/2006