With popular interest in health on the upswing, grocery stores are being flooded with foods marketed to sound healthy. In a number of cases, these products actually contain ingredients that are over-processed, artificial and just plain unhealthy. Here’s how to cut through the marketing language to discover the healthy options that exist among the over-processed impersonators.
1. Natural Peanut Butter
Don’t be fooled by “no stir” peanut butters claiming to be natural. The “no stir” claim is actually a tip-off that the product contains added ingredients like palm oil, salt and sugar. If your peanut butter is truly natural, it needs to be stirred and kept in the fridge.
Dietitian’s Tip: Look for nut butters made with only one ingredient: nuts.
2. Soy Milk
Is soy milk the complete plant protein alternative to cow’s milk? Yes and no. Be wary when shopping for soy milk, because some brands can include a long list of unnecessary ingredients. Check the ingredients list see how your soy milk measures up. For example, does it have carrageenan listed along with whole soybeans? If carrageenan is listed, you know you have a more processed product on your hands, and there are probably only remnants of whole soybeans present.
Dietitian’s Tip: Choose soy milk with whole soybeans and water listed at the beginning of the ingredient list.
3. Microwave Popcorn
Don’t be fooled by microwave popcorn labeled “light” or “low fat”: it’s hard to find a truly healthy option. Hunting down a microwave popcorn that doesn’t have some form of artificial butter flavor is tough enough, but the bags that most commercial popcorn come in can contain potentially dangerous chemicals like perfluorooctanoate (PFOA).
Dietitian’s Tip: Instead of microwave popcorn, buy whole popcorn kernels and put them in a paper bag. Tape the top closed and microwave, then add your own seasoning. For example: Sauté garlic in olive oil and cayenne pepper and pour that over your popcorn. Shake up the paper bag to spread seasoning evenly, then transfer to a bowl. Other seasoning ideas: Italian seasoning, salt and vinegar, or dill and black pepper.
Dannon’s Fruit on the Bottom Strawberry Banana Yogurt has a whopping 22 grams — or 5 ½ teaspoons! — of sugar. Meanwhile, two Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups contain 21 grams of sugar. I don’t know about you, but if my yogurt is packing as much sugar as a Reese’s, I might just have a Peanut Butter Cup instead.
Dietitian’s Tip: Choose plain or Greek, non-fat dairy and soy yogurts to avoid the sugar rush. Add flavor with some cinnamon and fruit or cucumber and dill.
5. Multi-Grain Bread
Multi-grain breads claim that they have many grains. The key question is: Are they whole grains? Often, multi-grain breads are full of processed versions of oat, wheat and barley.
Dietitian’s Tip: Look for breads labeled “100% whole grain” or “100% whole wheat.” Remember, whole grain products should not be listed as enriched or fortified because whole grains still have all of their nutrients intact. They will also be naturally higher in fiber.
6. Diet Soda
With no calories, diet soda is basically like water, right? Wrong. Consider the processed ingredients used to create the flavor of diet soda. That sweet taste coming from sugar substitutes can increase your craving for sweets and cause you to develop a flavor preference for sweet foods. Diet soda may also lead to weight gain and impaired blood sugar control.
Dietitian’s Tip: Steer clear of sweet beverages. Instead, choose drinks that are naturally calorie-free such as water and unsweetened coffee or tea.
7. Deli Turkey
It’s turkey, it’s white meat, and it’s roasted — what’s the problem? Always look at the ingredients in lunch meats. Carrageenan is, once again, an indicator that the product in question is overly processed. Is the third ingredient (usually corn starch) followed by a list of unpronounceable items and then caramel coloring? Caramel coloring is used to dye the lunch meat back to a color that passes as meat.
Dietitian’s Tip: Look for turkey meats that list fewer ingredients. Better yet, cook a turkey or chicken breast and carve slices from it.
Kombucha is a fermented Chinese tea. It’s refreshing, and has probiotics — also known as “good” bacteria that help support gut and immune health. But beware of juice that’s dressed up as kombucha. Sometimes fancy flavors end up adding sugar and calories, leaving you with a $5 juice box with over 100 calories.
Dietitian’s Tip: Check the nutrition label for sugar content. Also, pay attention to portion size: one bottle is usually two servings.
9. Light Olive Oil
Contrary to the name, light olive oil is not in fact “light” in the sense that it’s lower in fat or calories. Light olive oil is lighter in color and flavor than extra virgin olive oil, but contains just as much fat and calories.
Dietitian’s Tip: To get the full benefit of olive oil, choose extra virgin. Fats do go rancid, so it’s better to buy smaller glass bottles of olive oil and use them in a few months than large bargain bottles that will go bad and diminish in nutritional value. True olive oil should have a peppery bite that you’ll feel when it hits the back of your throat.
10. Light Salad Dressing
Light salad dressings are usually more processed than regular salad dressings; fillers and sugar or sugar substitutes are added to make up for the reduction in fat content.
Having a healthy fat like extra virgin olive oil in your salad dressing is actually a good thing. If your salad is filled with fruits and vegetables, it will contain fat-soluble vitamins. These vitamins are better absorbed when paired with healthy fat.
Dietitian’s Tip: The best option for salad dressing? Make your own. Try this simple vinaigrette: Mix extra virgin olive oil with vinegar and some Dijon mustard to taste. You can add Italian seasoning, cumin, lime juice or ginger to create flavor variations.
This blog post was originally published on November 15, 2013. It was last updated on January 16, 2017.