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As we all know, there is always some new diet to try, new code word to look for, or new superfood that ‘cures everything’. We continue to give in to all these sales pitches in hopes that this time it will work, somehow forgetting the 20 previous fads we followed that did not work. We all do it, but why? Everyone wants to believe they are choosing what is healthy for them as well as their families, and most people learn what to think is healthy by reading articles online and in magazines as well as word of mouth from people around them. It doesn’t take much more than a statement that something is healthy, maybe some vague statistics, to make us believe it is true, because why would anyone lie about that?
Companies know this. They use it to their advantage. All businesses want to make money, and in order to do that they must somehow convince consumers that their product is the best, is unique in some way. This is why food labels often contain statements such as “all natural”, “organic”, “free range”, “made with real sugar”, “low sodium”, “paleo”, “vegan”, “non-GMO”, “fair-trade”, “local” and of course all the “frees”: “Gluten free”, “wheat free”, “fat free”, “sugar free”, “soy free”, “free of artificial colors and sweeteners”, “water free.” Ok I made that last one up but you get picture. All of these labels have good intention, however they quickly lose their meaning as companies find ways to manipulate these words, and make money doing so. So we create new words to convey health once the old ones lose meaning, and it snowballs to the point that no one knows what to buy anymore.
I wish there was an easy answer to all this, but the truth is there is no easy answer. There never will be. Mindless shopping and mindless eating is no longer an option for anyone wanting to live a healthy lifestyle. We have to think about where we shop, what we buy when we shop, where those products were made and most importantly how they interact with our bodies. Simply eating organic or eating gluten free isn’t enough. The food industry today is designed to keep you blind and confused. Don’t let it. Do your research and use your intuition. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Below is a list of five common impostor health foods that may seem like a good choice, but are often just empty calories with a pretty label.
1.) Free Food
Let’s back up to the word “free.” This one word is used to articulate product values across our grocery stores, but what does it really mean? In an ideal world, free means good, it means we don’t have to worry about something unhealthy being in our food. However, when a food is free of one thing, you can be guaranteed that it has been replaced with another to keep the flavor, texture and/or color recognizable. Usually this replacement will be something of equal or lesser value to your body, i.e. fat replaced by sugar, gluten grains replaced with a combination of processed starches and gums containing no nutritive value.
For example, when fat is taken out of ranch dressing, the taste is no longer appealing, so companies will add extra sugar and artificial flavors to mask it. Once it tastes better, they still need to add thickeners and artificial colors to make it look and feel like ranch (since the fat is what made the ranch thick and creamy in the first place). In the end you have a product, that although it is fat free, it is high in sugar and artificial processed bits that are no better for you.
Now this does not mean you should go douse all your salads in original ranch dressing, but on the occasion that you do, at least know what you are putting in your body.
We all know that sodas are full of sugars and artificial flavors, but what about all those other drinks you buy at the store? Vitamin waters, sweetened teas, energy drinks, all of these things contain just as much sugar, if not more, than regular sodas. Read the labels, compare them to the label on a soda bottle, and pay attention to serving sizes. The label may say 38g of sugar, but a serving size is half a bottle. So if you drink the whole bottle you are getting 76g of sugar. As a comparison, the maximum amount of daily sugar suggested by the American Heart Association is 25g for women and 37.5g for men. Again, if you drink that whole bottle with 76g of sugar, you are getting over the daily maximum in one sitting.
Your best bet is always to just drink water. Water is necessary for every function of our body, and our level of hydration directly affects our concentration and mood throughout the day. If you need something with more flavor, put lemon, lime or cucumber in your water. Choose flavored soda water, unsweetened teas, or coconut water. You will be surprised by how much more energy you have during the day if you stay hydrated and avoid sweet beverages that spike your blood sugar.
3.) Yogurt (and granola)
This one is a particularly slippery slope, as it is often associated with healthy living in our country. To be clear, yogurt and granola can be an excellent health food. It contains many of the necessary nutrients our body craves: protein , fiber , carbohydrates , healthy fats, as well as assorted micronutrients (vitamins. minerals and phytonutrients). However not all yogurt and granola combos are the same, and most are not up to par with what could be considered healthy. Companies use advertising to make you assume that these products are good for you, when in all reality many of them are high in processed sugar, low in fiber and micronutrients. On top of that, the sourcing for their yogurt is often from cows raised on antibiotics and GMO corn, their granola from pesticide covered grains, their fruit preserved with extra sugar, and all of it stripped of nutritive value so that it can be shelf stable for a longer period of time. Again there are good choices out there, so do your research and make educated decisions on what you are buying.
Choosing your yogurt and granola:
First and foremost, make your own whenever possible. Control what you are putting in your body, don’t let someone else decide for you. Choose a yogurt that is from a reliable source (this may mean you have to research the company or the area you are in). When possible choose yogurt made from cow’s milk that was raised organically, minimally processed, and without added sugars. If you don’t consume dairy, there are a number of yogurts made from alternative milks; again make sure these are minimally processed and don’t contain a high amount of sugar and additives(*note: alternative milks/yogurts will contain some small amount of thickeners or binders to keep them from separating).
Choose an organic granola that when you read the label contains whole grains, nuts, seeds and not a lot of added sugars and preservatives. Choose one without dried fruit and add fresh fruit to it. Or even better, make the granola yourself using your favorite grains, nuts and seeds. Try new ingredients you haven’t heard of, research them to find out their nutritional value. Have fun with it! Remember, the more you know about what you are eating the better.
4.) Veggie ‘Chips’
Just because a bag of chips is made from sweet potato, beets, cava root, or any other nutrient dense root, doesn’t mean that the chips themselves will be nutrient dense, or any better for you than regular potato chips. Veggie chips are still chips, and chips are empty calories. When you thin slice a vegetable and deep fry it, the heat of the oil will kill the nutrients that were once present in that vegetable. On top of being devoid of nutrients, these chips are now soaked in oil that is usually a processed and nutrient-less fat. As if this isn’t enough, the chips are then covered in salt (sodium) to make them tasty yet addicting.
So what about baked chips? Granted these are better than fried chips since they don’t necessarily have the same high level of fat, but they are still going to be depleted of many of their nutrients from heat exposure and processing, and again covered in salt.
A better option: try buying beets, parsnips or carrots in the produce section at the store and slicing those into fresh veggie chips yourself. Keep a container of them cut and ready in your fridge so next time you crave chips you have something good to grab instead. These go great with hummus, bean dips, guacamole, and salsa. It won’t be the same of course, but if you make it a habit, soon your body will crave the nutrients from fresh vegetable instead of the salt from the chips.
One of the most common and deadly culprits hidden in food is sugar. As a country we are addicted to sugar, truly addicted. The reason is because it is in everything.
Cereal is an easy vessel in which to hide sugar and empty calorie ingredients. It is something that most of us eat, is considered a proper breakfast, and we grew up with it being sweet so we don’t think twice about it. But eating processed sugar first thing in the morning only makes your cravings worse, not to mention it will cause your blood sugar to spike which means your mood and energy levels will be uneven the rest of the day. Children’s cereals often contain as much sugar as eating a candy bar or drinking a soda, but do we let children have candy and soda for breakfast? No. So why would we let them eat, or let ourselves eat, a bowl of pure sugar for breakfast, often called ‘the most important meal of the day”. For one thing, the label is deceiving. It shows a nice long list of all the vitamins and minerals contained within that box. However these are synthetic vitamins that need to be added to make up for the complete lack of natural vitamins in a product, and those still don’t make up for the amount of processed grains, sugars and fats in that same product.
Even if you are reaching for the granolas, the whole grain cereals, the boxes with pretty pictures of green farms and fresh produce that just look healthy, take another look at that label. Ignore the pictures and the catch words on the front. Look at the little words on the label panel. Those are the words that matter. Look at the amount of sugar in that box, as well as the serving size. Serving sizes can be as small as ¼ cup; when was the last time you ate just a ¼ cup of cereal? How much fat, protein, and dietary fiber is listed? Look at what ingredients are in it. Look out for words like ‘enriched’ flour, it is enriched because they stripped the grains of all it’s natural vitamins and minerals and are trying to make it sound better by adding back synthetic vitamins and minerals. Studies do show that synthetic and natural vitamins react the same in our body, however we add synthetic vitamins to products like cereal because it is otherwise an empty calorie food. Don’t be fooled by sneaky wording and advertising, know what you and your family are eating.
My FD name is Kitchen Ninja (Kinja). I am from Auburn, AL. I graduated from Johnson & Wales University with a Bachelors in Culinary Nutrition. I am currently Sous Chef at Linger in Denver. My passion is creating nutritious food for others and spreading knowledge of health through food and cooking.