Devil in Disguise: Those Not So Healthy "Health Foods"

In a world that’s inundated with food marketing, celebrity endorsements, conflicting nutritional studies and under qualified diet “experts” spewing advice, it’s not hard to believe that there is an abundance of misinformation about food out there. With so much content to sift through, we can easily be guided towards not-so-healthy health foods. You know, the ones that have been marketed to us in some way as being healthy despite poor nutritional attributes. These foods, my friends, are referred to as having a health halo.

Keep in mind, that having a health halo doesn’t exactly mean that foods are totally unhealthy either. In many cases these foods are just not as healthy as they are perceived to be. And I certainly do believe that there no good or bad foods (apart from maybe those trans fats laden ones), so those mentioned are not the “devil” as alluded to in the title...I may have exaggerated a little with the title to get your attention (okay, I admit that's exactly what I did).

So without further adieu, here are 5 foods that are frequently thought of as healthy but are hiding less than healthy features under their health halo.  


 

Juice

Whether it’s from fruits and/or veggies, juice is one of the top foods that suffers from the health halo effect. You may be thinking ‘Juice? What’s wrong with juice?’ Well...a few things, actually.

Now juice isn’t inherently bad. Depending on the fruits and/or vegetables used, juice can contain a number of beneficial vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. The problem really lies within how much juice people drink and the sugar it contains.

Juice is obviously going to contain sugar, even if it isn’t added to it. All fruit and veggies contain some sugar and, hence, all juice naturally contains sugar. Now some vegetable juices will contain less but often times even veggie juices are combined with fruit to give it an appealing sweetness. The reality is that not many people want to drink unsweetened spinach juice.

Why am I focusing on sugar, you ask? Overconsumption of sugar has been associated with the development and poorer outcomes in disease such as diabetes and heart disease , as well as, promotes unfavourable cholesterol profiles, chronic inflammation, dental caries and weight gain. So, this focus on sweet, sweet sugar is justified.

Let’s get down to the numbers. Below, I’ve compared the sugar and calorie content of 1 cup (240ml) of orange juice (fresh squeezed), Cranberry Juice (Ocean Spray 100%) and Coca Cola.

OJ = 21 grams sugar, 112 kcal

Cranberry juice = 28 grams sugar, 110 kcal

Coca Cola = 25 grams sugar, 101 kcal

To put the sugar number in perspective, 1 teaspoon (tsp) of sugar is equal to 4 grams. So, one cup of orange juice has 5 ¼ tsps of sugar, cranberry juice has 7 tsps and Coca Cola has 6 ¼ tsps. Current recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO) set a daily goal of less than 12 teaspoons of simple sugars. Within a single, 1 cup serving of juice (or cola) you’ve already reached half of your daily recommended intake of simple sugars.  

 If it helps, think of teaspoons of sugar in terms of sugar cubes. One teaspoon of sugar is roughly one sugar cube. 

If it helps, think of teaspoons of sugar in terms of sugar cubes. One teaspoon of sugar is roughly one sugar cube. 

When you look at it in terms of sugar, there really isn’t that much difference between juice and soda pop. It stands to reason that if we are on a crusade to limit our pop intake due to its sugar content, we should do the same for juice. Even with the vitamins and minerals contained in juice, it still doesn’t make up for its sugar content, especially when we can get those same nutrients from eating fruits and veggies in their unjuiced form.

To put the sugar content even further into perspective, to get the same amount of sugar that is contained in one cup of orange or cranberry juice, you’d need to eat almost 3 oranges (2.88 oranges, in fact) or 6 cups of chopped cranberries, respectively. That’s a lot of fruit in one sitting.

Fresh fruits and veggies will always win out over their respective juices. Whole fruits and veggies contain fiber, which juices do not. This fiber will help slow the release of sugars into the bloodstream and provide a satiation, or fullness, factor that juices just cannot. Juice provides sugar and related calories but none of satisfaction. Chances are if you try to satisfy your hunger with a tall glass of juice you'll soon find yourself searching through the cupboards for something else to take care of your hunger. 

Want to learn more about sugars and carbohydrates? Check out Nutrition 101: Carbohydrates and Fact or Fiction: Sugar Edition.

Recommendations:

Start thinking of juice as an occasional treat and if you must have your daily glass, remember that a serving is only ½ cup (125ml). If you left wanting more juice after your cup is done, reach for some water (regular or carbonated, if you want something different) or a piece of fruit. And if you are trying to lose weight, it’s probably a good idea to stay away from juice altogether.

When buying juice, stick to as pure juice as you can find. Avoid all with added sugar, natural juices should be sweet enough on their own. Also, don’t worry if you see ascorbic acid as an ingredient in juices, as it is just vitamin C.

 You are probably better off grabbing a glass of water, or carbonated water, instead of juice. All the hydration, none of the sugar. 

You are probably better off grabbing a glass of water, or carbonated water, instead of juice. All the hydration, none of the sugar. 



 

Smoothies

Who doesn’t love a nice frosty smoothie? They are convenient, tasty and are a great ‘on-the-run’ food. They are almost the perfect meal...almost. Now smoothies can be made in a perfectly healthy manner, in that they can provide a healthy mix of protein, carbohydrates and fat. However, they also have the potential to provide a disproportionate amount of calories and sugar, especially if from a commercial smoothie stand. This can easily happen when they are made with too much juice or fruit. This takes smoothies from being an acceptably healthy meal or snack, to a deceptively unhealthy one.

The positive news is that unlike juices, this type of liquid nutrition will satisfy hunger. Since the fiber is not lost in the blending process, you’ve got a more substantial drink which isn’t going to give the rapid blood sugar spike you would see from consuming the same amount of sugar in juice form. The protein and fat in the smoothie will also help with this.

For example, a Strawberry, Mango and Yogurt Smoothie (from Martha Stewart’s popular “most pinned” smoothies). Per serving, the recipe calls for: 150 ml of apple juice (14.9 grams sugar), ½ cup strawberries (3.4 grams sugar), 1 cup cut up mango (22.5 grams of sugar).

From the fruit alone (which is about 4.5 servings of fruit), there is 40.8 grams or 10 teaspoons of sugar. Even though just over half of this sugar comes from fruit, it is still a lot of sugar for the majority of people to have at one time.

 

Recommendations:

You don’t necessarily need to remove smoothies from your diet. There is no reason they can’t be a healthy part of your life. You just need to be aware of what is going in them. A basic rule of thumb for smoothie making is this - make sure whatever you put in your blender is of the normal proportions as you would have on your plate. Would you have 4 or 5 servings of fruit in one sitting? Probably not.

A basic smoothie template is:

  • 1-1.5 servings of fruit (1 serving = ½ cup cut up or 1 medium whole fruit, like a banana)
  • 0-1 servings of non-starchy veggies [leafy greens work great] (1 serving = 1 cup leafy veg, 1/2 cup other veg)
  • 1 serving of dairy (1 serving = 3/4 cup plain yogurt, or 1 cup of milk or non-dairy milk)
  • 1-2 servings of protein (1 serving = 1 tbsp nut butter, ¼ nuts, 2 tbsp hemp/chia seeds)
  • 0-1 servings of fat (1 serving = 1 tbsp flax or omega-3 rich oil, coconut oil)
  • Optional: water, add instead of juice if smoothie is too thick


 

Fruit-Flavoured Yogurt

Fruit-flavoured yogurt yet is another food that masquerades as a health food. Yogurt has a long held reputation as a wholesome food and it can be healthy, if you pick the right one.

When you are selective, you can find yogurts that earn the Dietitian’s nod of approval. After all, yogurt is a great source of protein, calcium, and gut-friendly bacteria. However, you do have to be selective. Many of the commercially made yogurts, and particularly fruit-flavoured ones, have too much sugar in them.

For example, information from the USDA Nutrient Database shows that, per ¾ cup serving, the average fruit-flavoured, non-fat yogurt has 35 grams, or almost 9 tsps of sugar. That’s about 75% of the WHO’s recommendation for sugar. Now, compare that to a serving of plain, whole milk yogurt with only 5 grams, or 1 ¼ tsps, of sugar. The addition of fruit flavour gives an additional 30 grams (or ~ 8 tsps) of sugar. And if you think the low-fat status of the fruity yogurt means it’s lower in calories...guess again. A serving of the fruit-flavoured, low fat yogurt provides 175 kcal, while the plain, whole milk yogurt gives 104 kcal.

What about yogurts with artificial sweeteners, you ask? Well, they don’t fare any better, in my opinion. Check out the nutritional information of the average fruit-flavoured, reduced-fat yogurt with artificial sweetener. One serving contains: 193 calories, 2.6 grams of fat, 34 grams of carbohydrates (5.3 of which are simple sugars). You’ve got an additional 98 calories and 29 grams of carbohydrates in this version compared to the plain, whole milk version. Note that the total number of simple sugars are the same (these are naturally occurring milk sugars or lactose, I assume), which leaves the rest of the carbs as something that was probably added to replace the fat. Remember, looks can be deceiving. Products described as “diet” aren’t always the best choice.


Recommendations:

Yogurt can be a wonderful food to incorporate in your diet, as long as you know what to look for. My yogurt recommendation is  “keep it simple”. Stick to plain, whole milk yogurt. It’ll satiate you more than the ‘diet’ versions and won’t spike your blood sugars.

When looking at the ingredients list, look for a short list of ingredients, no added sugar (ie. any ingredient ending in ‘ose’, such as glucose), and live bacterial cultures.

If you can’t live without a flavour in your yogurt, try adding your own fruit to it, or simply some cinnamon or a drop or two of vanilla extract. 




Low-Fat Products

Products, such as low-fat cookies, peanut butter, cakes and yogurts came into popularity in the fight against heart disease and continued to be a mainstay in our grocery stores due to our preoccupation with dieting and weight loss. The only problem here is that these products may do more harm than good.

The influx of low-fat or no-fat products have not shown to be the quick fix against heart disease or obesity. It turns out that food companies didn’t just take the fat out of these foods, they replaced the fats with carbohydrates. You see, taking the fat out of food changes the taste, the mouthfeel and the overall satisfaction one experiences when consuming it. Manufacturers needed to create low-fat products that customers would still buy and they by replacing fats with carbohydrates.

As you probably have learned by now is that nutritional science is a bit of a work in progress. We are constantly gaining a deeper understanding of how specific nutrients influence our body...and the low-fat experiment didn’t turn out to be as successful as they had hoped. Studies now are suggesting that the fats we thought were super bad (ie. saturated fats) may not be as bad as once thought. Now, this doesn’t mean they are a health food, either. They just may not be enemy #1, as previously thought. We are learning that replacing the fats in our diet with carbohydrates has a negative effect on our cardiovascular system, the exact thing we were trying to prevent in the first place.

Let’s compare peanut butter, natural vs. reduced-fat. One would probably assume that the low-fat peanut butter would be the better choice. I mean, after years of being told that fat is bad, why wouldn’t one automatically reach for the one with the least amount of it?

Per 2 tablespoon serving, the average reduced-fat peanut butter has 187 calories, 12 grams of fat, 9 grams of protein, and 13 grams of carbohydrates (including 2 grams of fiber). The same serving size of natural peanut butter (ie. made with only peanuts) contains 200 calories, 16 grams of fat, 10 grams of protein and 6 grams of carbohydrates (2 of which is fiber).

While the calories may be similar (a difference of 13 calories isn’t that big of a deal), the carbs in the reduced fat version are higher. When you factor out the grams of fiber (fyi - dietary fiber is a carbohydrate that your body does not digest, therefore provides no calories), the reduced fat peanut butter has 11 grams of carbohydrates, that’s 7 grams (or almost 2 teaspoons) more than the regular, “just-peanuts” version.

We want to do our best to take care of our heart and cardiovascular system and what we have learned is that replacing fat with carbohydrates in a food product really has no benefit. What's more is that we have to remember that our bodies need fat. Fat is not the enemy.

 

Recommendations:

I’m not saying you should go back to gorging on regular cookies, cakes and pre-packaged food products, I’m just saying that the low-fat versions aren’t any better for you. Don’t trick yourself into thinking they are healthy.

As for foods like yogurt or peanut butter just stick to the regular, natural versions. Remember, the ‘keep it simple’ motto.


 

Organic Foods

Organics have a very strong health halo and quasi-religious following in some circles. There are a number of people who believe that just because something is organic that it is automatically healthier. This just isn't true. 

Organic junk food is still junk food. Those naturally-coloured, organic sugar cane sweetened gummies are still candy. That 20 ounce glass of organic juice is still juice and contains way too much sugar for one sitting. And those organic cookies...I’m sorry that you paid $12 for that box of organic, free trade peanut butter chocolate chunk cookies but they aren’t healthy either. Delicious, yes. Healthy, no. The absence of pesticides, or synthetic pesticides I should say, says very little about the nutrient profile of the food.

What about other organic foods: fruits, vegetables, whole grains? Well, up until now there hasn’t been a lot of overwhelming evidence to prove that organic foods are that much healthier than conventional foods (ie. those grown with pesticides). One 2014 review did find that organic fruits and veggies tend to contain a higher level of antioxidants but the differences when put into a practical setting (ie. servings of fruit and vegetables) weren’t that significant nor did they warrant the price difference between the two. Now, you may have other reasons to choose organic, particularly that of the environment, but that’s not in the realm of this post today.

While it makes sense that the less chemicals that we are exposed to the better (right?) we are unfortunately lacking clear evidence that this is the case. And without such proof, I find it hard to recommend organics over conventional foods, especially if it means that a person or family’s purchasing power for food significantly decreases. I know I'm not alone in saying that I’d much rather see someone eat lots of conventional fruits and veggies then only be able to afford a fraction of what is recommended in organic produce.

 

Recommendations:

If you want to buy organic, buy organic. Just remember that an organic stamp doesn’t mean something is automatically healthy. Don’t trick yourself into thinking organic junk food is part of your “clean eating” lifestyle.

If organic foods are not accessible to you, whether due to lack of availability or high cost, rest assured that the evidence at this point in time does not suggest that organic foods are superior. When it comes to fruits and veggies, most nutrition experts just want you to eat them, no matter how they were grown.

Want to read more about organics? Read this: Are the Dirty Dozen Really That Dirty?



 

Gluten-Free Foods

Similar to the health halo that surrounds organic foods, gluten-free foods often get a ‘healthy’ pass independent of their nutritional content. Many people unknowingly munch down gluten-free foods thinking that they are healthy. And I’m talking pre-packaged gluten-free products here, not those foods naturally free of gluten.

Gluten-free brownies are still brownies. And gluten-free pancakes are, you guessed it, still pancakes. The removal of gluten, a protein found in a number of grains, from a product does not magically increase its nutritional power. A gluten-free diet also isn’t the secret to weight loss, no matter what you read. People who claim that the pounds just drop off because of ditching gluten from their diets, probably a) were eating like crap before and/or b) have severely limited their food choices causing a reduced caloric intake.

Of course, there are people who need to eat gluten-free due to Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. For these people, gluten-free products are the healthy choice and I’m using the term ‘healthy’ in terms of ‘not tearing apart your insides and causing extreme discomfort’ healthy. Nutrition-wise, gluten-free products will range from super healthy to junk...just like other gluten containing foods.

 

Recommendations:

Don’t be fooled by a gluten-free label. It doesn’t automatically mean that the food is a nutrition powerhouse or any better than gluten-containing foods. Gluten is not inherently bad. For those with a medically valid reason to avoid gluten, gluten-free products are necessary and the increased availability of such foods, a blessing.

If you suspect you have an issue with gluten, discuss this with your doctor and undergo a proper medical investigation to find out if gluten, or something else entirely, is causing you problems.