As a moderately health-conscious woman, I always check the labels when I go grocery shopping. Well, almost always.
For some reason, when I head into health food stores like Whole Foods, I just assume thateverything in there is healthy, so I don't need to waste my time reading nutrition facts -- I can just toss whatever I want in my basket. And really, when half the products have some form of "organic," "all natural," or "gluten-free" on the packaging, can you blame me?
I'm not totally off base with my reasoning. Whole Foods promises on its website not to sell any products with "artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners, and hydrogenated fats." So I already know I don't need to check the labels for any of those.
But, just because an item is in a store like Whole Foods and free of all that artificial stuff doesn't necessarily mean it's healthy. There are plenty of unhealthy health foods out there ready to help me pack on the pounds. To find out which so-called health foods are the worst offenders, I asked a team of nutritionists to head to their local Whole Foods stores, scrutinize food labels, and report back on the items they'd never drop in their carts.
If you have a gluten intolerance, that little "gluten-free" label can be a literal lifesaver. But if youdon't have a gluten intolerance, you're really not doing yourself any favors by avoiding the ingredient. "Gluten-free does not equal healthier," says clinical nutritionist Stella Metsovas, BS, CCN. "These products just replace wheat flour with brown rice flour, which isn't much better for you." She adds that many gluten-free products can be loaded with sugar and starch. "You're getting tons of carbs, and very few nutrients, with these packaged foods," says Metsovas.
What could be bad about tea? If it doesn't come from your own teapot, be warned: "Bottled teas are often sweetened with sugar, and many of them are essentially just uncarbonated soda," says Andrea N. Giancoli, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Need proof? Honest Tea Honey Green Tea has a whopping 18 grams of sugar. And even the Classic Green Tea has 9 g of organic cane sugar.
And while it is possible to find bottled teas without added sugar, you're still missing out on the main reason to drink tea in the first place: the polyphenols. Polyphenols are the antioxidants in tea that can help you with a whole host of beauty and health issues -- but they're in short supply when your tea comes in a plastic bottle. A recent study supported by the American Chemical Society found that a typical cup of brewed black or green tea has 50 to 150 milligrams of polyphenols. But the average bottled tea has only 3 to 81 mg. And since polyphenols aren't listed on nutrition labels, you have no way of knowing how much your bottle has.
In general, the convenient pre-made salads are healthy. The dressings, however, are another story.
"Salad dressings can be filled with sugar," says Metsovas. She's spotted ones with up to 50 g in one serving! That's bad as it is, but there's another problem with a skimpy salad and sugary dressing. "Dressings with high sugar cause your blood sugar to spike, so you'll be hungry and craving more sugar soon after you finish," she says.
If your only options are dressings with a lot of sugar in them (and you can't eat your salad dry), Metsovas says you're better off skipping the salad and grabbing a sandwich instead, since it'll keep you feeling full for longer.
Shouldn't six grains be better than one? Not if those six grains had all their nutrients stripped out of them, which is often the case with foods labeled "multi-grain." The real term you want to look for is "whole grain," says Giancoli. Whole grain means the product hasn't been refined.
What's so wrong with refining? Essentially, refining grains chemically bleaches the flour, removing the natural vitamins and minerals at the same time, says Elaine Wilkes, PhD, NC, MA, LEED, author of "Nature's Secret Messages: Hidden in Plain Sight." After the bleaching process, the flour is "enriched" with synthetic nutrients, but it's really not the same as the original whole grain nutrients. Wilkes describes it as "dead bread."
You'd never consider a can of Coke to be healthy, but the promises of "natural flavor" and "organic sugar" on bottles of sodas like Izze and Jones Soda make them almost seem OK, right?
First of all, Wilkes says "natural flavors" are a joke. "If a label contains 'natural flavors' it doesn't mean that it's natural or healthy," she says. "Artificial and natural flavors are manufactured at the same chemical plants as other flavors. They have nothing to do with nature." The natural flavors won't really harm you or your diet, but they're certainly not helping you either.
Then there's the sugar. Even natural sodas can be loaded with the sweet stuff. For example, Izze Sparkling Natural Soda Sparkling Ginger has 29 g of sugar. And while it may be "organic cane sugar," Metsovas says, "'natural sugars' prompt the same blood sugar response as 'non-natural sugars.' They're all equal in my mind." Giancoli agrees: "We should be decreasing our sugar intake," she says, "not replacing it with different types of sugar."
OK, maybe this one shouldn't be too shocking, but Giancoli says, "a cookie can be vegan, but it's still a cookie." Translation: While that cookie may not have any butter or lard in it, it can still have plenty of fat (via vegetable oil) and sugar. Metsovas does concede that vegan or organic desserts are "technically healthier, since they typically contain fewer refined ingredients." But, she adds, "you'll still put on weight even if it's natural fat and sugar."
ORGANIC CANNED SOUP
While these are generally better than traditional, non-organic canned soup, they can still be packed with sodium (and possible BPA). For example, Amy's Organic Chunky Vegetable Soup has 680 mg of sodium, more than half your recommended daily allowance. Giancoli says to look for canned soups with less than 400 mg per serving (and to watch out because many cans actually have two servings). Then you can add herbs like oregano, thyme, and basil to boost the flavor
JUICES AND SMOOTHIES
You already know that juice "cocktails" are loaded with added sugar, and that juice and smoothies in general pack a big calorie punch. But those 100 percent organic drinks are still a tempting alternative to a bowl of fruit, especially when you're on the go.
Giancoli highly recommends limiting yourself to a 6- to 8-ounce serving at a time (so keep an eye on your portions, especially with smoothies). The reason: Juice has concentrated fruit sugar, which means more calories but less satiety than if you were to just eat a piece of fruit. Plus, all that sugar (even though it's naturally from the fruit) will make you crave more sweet stuff later in the day, says Metsovas.
Yes, baked chips are healthier than their fried counterparts, but there is a catch. "Fried chips make you feel full faster because there's more fat in them," says Metsovas. "If you're not mindful, you can eat a lot more baked chips because they have less fat." This wouldn't be a problem, except for the fact that more chips (baked or otherwise) means more carbs, which means a higher number on the scale.
Thankfully, Metsovas has a solution for when you just have to have your baked chips: "Try to have something mixed in with baked chips, like raw almonds. That way you'll get some fatty acids in your snack that'll help you feel full."
Some of their picks (like the vegan cookies I chow down on almost daily) I had to admit I knew weren't good for me. But there were other health foods I was shocked to learn were actually really unhealthy. Keep reading to see what I mean and be prepared to re-think how you shop at Whole Foods and other health food stores.