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."
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.