The New 'Healthy' Foods

4 rules for making smart choices

By Heather Hatfield
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

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:

  • Not only is McDonald's offering Apple Dippers (sliced apples with caramel sauce on the side) in place of french fries, it has found a willing customer base for its Premium Salads. "Since they were introduced in 2003, McDonald's has sold over 200 million Premium Salads," says Cathy Kapica, PhD, RD, the company's global director of nutrition. "Since each Premium Salad is two servings of vegetables according to the [U.S. Department of Agriculture], that is over 400 million servings of leafy green vegetables that Americans ate at McDonald's that they weren't eating two years ago."
  • McDonald's is only one of many fast-food chains offering healthier menu items. Last year, The Center for Science in the Public Interest rated the five best fast-food options, based on fresh, low-fat ingredients. They were: Wendy's Mandarin Chicken Salad; Burger King Chicken Whopper Jr.; Subway's Low-Fat Subs; McDonald's Fruit 'n Yogurt Parfait; and the Burger King BK Veggie Burger. When choosing fast food, Moores says, "anything that offers more than earth-tone colors is a good option. Salads are great; chilis are good; fruit and yogurt parfaits are good; and some chicken sandwiches are OK." And be sure to skip the soda in favor of low-fat milk or orange juice.
  • After extensive taste-testing found that consumers liked whole-grain cereals as much or better than the previous cereal recipes, General Mills decided to start making all of its breakfast cereals with whole grain. The move "will single-handedly increase by more than 1.5 billion the number of whole-grain servings per year for Americans, without additional calories," says Susan J. Crockett, PhD, RD, senior director of the company's nutrition research division.
  • Pepsico has started using less sugar in some Tropicana juices and has lowered calories in some of its oatmeal bars. Sales of foods that the company classified as "good for you" or "better for you" grew 10% last year -- more than twice as quickly as foods labeled as "indulgence" foods (those of little or poor health value). Pepsico has also introduced a "Smart Spot" symbol to label foods that meet certain company nutrition standards, such as reduced fat or no trans fats.
  • Nabisco has introduced 100-calorie "snack packs" for many of its popular brands, such as Wheat Thins and Oreos. Each pack has 100 calories, 0-3 grams of total fat, and meets the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's per-serving standard for zero grams of trans fat, according to the company's web site.
  • StonyField Farm, an organic yogurt company, is bringing the concept of healthy food to an unlikely venue -- the vending machine. The company's all-organic vending machine -- available only in schools -- offers smoothies, pita chips, BBQ-flavored soy crisps, all-natural cereal bars, milk, and string cheese. "Right now, we have machines in California, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Illinois, and it's growing from there," says Cathleen Toomey, vice president of communications for StonyField Farm.

The Bottom Line

From 100-calorie snack packs to apple dippers, if consumers buy them, the food industry will continue to sell healthy products,

"Companies are rewarded by seeing the bottom line improve, and if that works, then other companies will join in," says Moores. Better yet, "When the bigger companies start making these changes, you know that this thing has legs."

But are these changes enough to really make a dent in America's obesity problem?

"Are we headed in the right direction?" asks Moores. "Absolutely. We are pleased and encouraged to see these changes. But we aren't there, and these changes alone won't get us there."

SOURCES: Cathy Kapica, MD, global director of nutrition, McDonalds, Oak Brook, Ill. Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, WebMD Weight Loss Clinic "Recipe Doctor"; author, Fry Light, Fry Right. Susan Moores, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association, St. Paul, Minn. Cathleen Toomey, vice president of communications, StonyField Farm, Londonderry, N.H. General Mills. Kraft Foods. WebMD Medical News: "Companies Tout U.S. Obesity Role," by Todd Zwillich, published May 6. 2004. WebMD Medical News: "Fast Food Picks and Pans," by Jennifer Warner, published Aug. 23, 2002.

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