9 "Health" Foods That Are Actually Unhealthy

By Dennis Buckley

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I invite you to take a walk through any aisle of your favorite grocery store. If you look carefully, you'll notice that there is a preponderance of food products out there masquerading as health foods. 

On almost any given shelf at any store, from WalMart to Whole Foods, you’re sure to see at least a handful of packaged food products with labels like:

  • Heart-healthy
  • All-natural
  • Organic
  • Vegan
  • Gluten-free
  • Sugar-free
  • Fat-free
  • Diary-free

Need I go on?

Sure, for those with food intolerances or dietary restrictions, these labels serve an important purpose, but to the average unsuspecting consumer, the above bullets are really just interpreted as synonyms for the word "healthy". 

The fact is, companies are always needing new ways to differentiate their products from their competitors, and there is a growing subsection of our cultural zeitgeist who wants to live healthier, and more conscious about the foods they allow into their homes.

Marketers have taken note and are trying to make their products mirror the health benefits the consumer is looking for.

This is nothing new, as evidenced by the food industry placing the blame on dietary fat and herding consumers towards sugar, but as more and more companies enter this highly competitive marketplace, there is an increasing amount of junk food being touted as healthy food.

So here we go. Let’s lift the veil and shed some light on the biggest offenders and offer some practical, healthier alternatives.

Cold-Pressed Juice

Somewhere between the cold-brew coffee cans and the kombucha bottles is a dizzying array of colorful cold-pressed juice products. They're usually marketed with messages promising detoxification, weight loss, alkalization, purification, increased energy and more.

As far as detoxification and purification go, the human body is remarkably adept at detoxifying itself (thanks to such novel organs as the kidney and lungs, among others).

Perhaps more egregious, there is no clear consensus about what a 'toxin' even is in this context or which ones we're supposed to be getting rid of.

In 2009  a group of scientists organized by the UK charity group, Sense about Science, reached out to the manufacturers of 15 products sold in pharmacies and supermarkets that claimed to detoxify [1]. When manufacturers were pressed for evidence behind these claims, not a single one could produce a shred of evidence or define what they meant by detoxification, or even explain what they meant by “toxins” in the first place.

That vast majority of juices on the market are really just vehicles for sugar sold as health drinks. Now, maybe sugar isn't exactly the root of all evil that it's often made out to be, but fruit juice amounts to little more than water, sugar, and some trace micronutrients 

Step Up Your Juice Game

The most obvious alternative to juice is to simply eat whole fruits.

Fruit has fiber and requires some mechanical digestion (aka chewing) which will slow the absorption of sugar into your bloodstream and keep glucose levels in check.

If you must have your juice, look for products that are lowest in sugar, or better yet, look for beverages that either contain a high ratio of vegetable juice to fruit juice, or ones that solely contain vegetable juice -- those are sure to be lowest in calories and sugar, while still providing the healthful micronutrients your body needs.

Most juice drinks suck. This one does not.

Soylent

 

For those unfamiliar, Soylent is a company that sells meal replacement bars, powder, and beverages that are marketed for busy people who don’t have the time to put together a meal.

The company claims to “engineer” their products to create "foods for function, not for excess", as compared to other meal replacement products that are little else than “brightly colored foodstuffs packed with fat, salt, and sugar," says the company's website.

A closer look at Soylent’s ingredient lists reveals that, yes, the products are functional, but does that mean they're good? Or healthy? 

*Ingredient label for their powdered meal replacement*
Canola oil as the second ingredient??

The logic to their formulations seems to directly follow the FDA guidelines, which essentially means the products contain enough sustenance to keep you alive -- that's about it. If you’re interested in optimizing your health and truly thriving, you’d be better off with a better nutrition bar comprised of whole-food ingredients, high-quality additives, and less filler.

Pitching the product as "functional" makes Soylent feel like a robot's cold and calculated answer to solving basic human nutrition. Soylent products exist to prove that they would keep you alive in some sort of post-apocalyptic disaster scenario.

Does it belong in your bug-out bag? Sure, but even for modern society’s busiest go-getter, this one is more gimmick than good nutrition.

A Better Option: (visit the upcoming section below on nutrition and health bars).

Dried fruit

We like to think of fruit as nature's candy (goofy as it sounds) which is generally accurate, but unfortunately the majority of dried fruit products include copious amounts of added sugars to increase palatability.

Most fruits with even a modest amount of natural sugar become significantly sweeter during the dehydration process, yet companies continue to add more sugar, in effect adding insult to injury.

Raisins, dried cranberries, pineapples, mangos, dates, or figs, you name it. They all contain enough residual sugar to satisfy a sweet tooth, yet many of the products on the market are made even sweeter thanks to added sugars.

Eat This Instead

If you can’t opt for the whole fruit option because you’re whipping up a batch of your Uncle Dan’s favorite trail mix, do yourself a favor and read the label.

These days deciphering a nutrition label can be a bewildering experience to the untrained eye, but as a rule of thumb, the best options to look for contain one ingredient on the label.

That ingredient is fruit.

Nutrition Bars

Of all the food items in this article, nutrition/health/fitness bars try the the hardest to convince you that eating them is in your best interest.

Granola bars, protein bars, fruit and nut bars, and any other nutrition bars usually emphasize a few unique characteristics they have (superfood ingredients, greens powders, prebiotics, real fruit pieces, antioxidants, etc.), but these products are almost all built on the same mediocre foundation.

The backbone of your average energy bar is going to be a combination of a refined, sugary syrup (brown rice syrup, glucose syrup, agave, among many others).

Next there will be a variety of binders and preservatives added to the formulation, often a protein powder, followed by things like dried fruit, nuts, and lastly some trace vitamins and minerals to validate the product as a nutrition bar.

The honest truth is that most health bars are candy bars in disguise. They might contain more protein, dried fruit, nuts, natural sugars, or anything else that could be considered "healthy" in comparison to a Snickers bar.

A Better Bar

The best way to approach finding a high-quality bar is to first find something with as few ingredients as possible.

Here are a three great examples:

  

Mark Sisson's Primal Kitchen Collagen bars

The next best strategy is to seek out bars with low amounts of sugar (<10 grams), low in calories, and higher fiber and protein. 

Nuts and Nut Butters

*Caveat*: Nuts and nut butters are actually fantastic, nutrient-dense foods and fat sources, but they are very easy to overeat, especially considering most packages contain several servings.

When low carb diets like Atkins and South Beach first became mainstream, people turned to nuts as the default, and therefore “healthy” or “safe” snack food option.

In theory this is a good move, but most people don’t weigh out a serving of nuts when they want a snack, nor are most nuts sold in single serving packages. Moreover, nuts tend to be salted, which makes them hyper-palatable:

Salty + fatty = very easy to overeat.

The Approach

The best way to navigate this one is to seek out single serving packages of nuts or squeeze packs of nut butters.

If you’re accustomed to eating them by the handful, you’re be surprised at what a single serving actually looks like (it ain’t much).

Additionally, it can be helpful to seek out unsalted nuts and nuts that don’t have any sugars or sweeteners added. Your palette is biologically wired to crave salty, sweet, and fatty foods, so be mindful of products that contain all three components -- that's the golden trifecta for a food that's hard to stop eating.

Energy Drinks

Time Magazine recently covered a new study that showed energy drinks are worse for your health than soda. The study was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association and it found that energy drinks, known for their high caffeine content, had a greater impact on increasing blood pressure and cardiovascular risk when compared to soda or even coffee [2].

Caffeine, as a stimulant, often gets a bad rap because it can increase blood pressure in some people (albeit only transiently), but energy drinks typically contain more caffeine than a cup of coffee, and as a one-two punch, tend to have sugar contents well into the double digits.

Drink These Instead

Most energy drinks are just soda with stimulants added. The best options are coffee and tea, but there are some decent energy drink alternatives out there too:

  • HiBall is a sparkling energy beverage with zero sugar (essentially it’s flavored sparkling water with caffeine and B vitamins)
  • Otherwise, you can find nitro-infused cold brew coffee or look for stevia or xylitol-sweetened energy drinks, so while you may be getting a high dose of caffeine, you won’t be getting the sugar rush.

Fat-Free Dairy Products

This one is a throwback to all those fat-free products from yesteryear when companies pulled a fast one on us by swapping out the fat content of foods for more sugar and partially hydrogenated oils.

Whenever you see a dairy product marked fat-free or low-fat, you can almost automatically assume it has more sugar and more additives to make the product more palatable and to cut calories.

Consider this:

  • A meta-analysis of 16 studies found that people who ate the most high-fat dairy foods had the lowest risk for obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease [3].
  • Another study showed that people who ate the most full-fat dairy had a 69% lower risk of cardiovascular death than those who ate the least [4]. 

Eat the regular version, but mind your portions.

Even if the real version (say butter instead of margarine) has a higher calorie count, it will likely not have all the chemicals, preservatives, sugars, or otherwise dubious additives companies use to reduce the fat and or calorie content.

Furthermore, you might simply eat less of whole-fat dairy products like yogurt since fat and protein are more satiating than sugar and carbohydrate. 

Natural Sweeteners

Here’s the deal, just because something says raw, natural, or organic, does not automatically make it healthy or somehow better than the more processed version.

Nowhere is this more true than with sweeteners.

The sugar industry has jumped on this train recently with things like sugar in the raw, cane sugar, agave nectar, etc. Compared to ordinary table sugar, these sweeteners give the consumer the perception that they are less refined or processed, and thus uniquely more healthy for you.

The fact it, your body can’t tell the difference between any of the aforementioned sweeteners, whether that is confectioner’s sugar, cane sugar, or even fancy turbinado sugar.

Eat This Instead

If you are intent on finding a healthier sweetener, and prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to artificial sweeteners, options like xylitol or stevia are your best bet.

These are both plant-derived sweeteners that won’t elicit a significant spike in insulin, and have no evidence demonstrating any ill effects of any sort. In fact, many populations would benefit from consuming natural, non-caloric sweeteners like stevia over other conventional sweetening agents [5].

Organic, All-Natural, Versions of Junk Food

 

Consumers who are attracted to all-natural, organic product packaging are prime targets for all forms of “healthier” foods that would otherwise be deemed junk food.

A cookie is a cookie, and a candy bar is a candy bar, no matter which way you cut it.

In fact, calorie-for-calorie, some of these supposed “healthier” goods are significantly higher in calories, despite the wholesome label claims.

Rule of Thumb

For this one, If you’re going to indulge, just indulge. Just because one option has organic, non-GMO brown rice syrup instead of corn syrup, doesn't mean it's open season to get after it in the junk food department.

When it comes to baked goods, if you’re interested in controlling which ingredients you put in your body, the best thing to do is step in the kitchen and bake it yourself.

So there you have it, 9 of the top "health" foods that are are either misleading, have much better alternatives, or are just plain lying to you.

 

Did I miss anything? What are some common "health" foods that drive you crazy? Let me know in the comments below!

 

 

References:

  1. http://senseaboutscience.org/pages/debunking-detox.html
  2. Fletcher, E. A., Lacey, C. S., Aaron, M., Kolasa, M., Occiano, A., & Shah, S. A. (2017). Randomized Controlled Trial of High‐Volume Energy Drink Versus Caffeine Consumption on ECG and Hemodynamic Parameters. Journal of the American Heart Association, 6(5), e004448.
  3. Kratz, M., Baars, T., & Guyenet, S. (2013). The relationship between high-fat dairy consumption and obesity, cardiovascular, and metabolic disease. European journal of nutrition, 52(1), 1-24.
  4. Bonthuis, M., Hughes, M. C. B., Ibiebele, T. I., Green, A. C., & Van Der Pols, J. C. (2010). Dairy consumption and patterns of mortality of Australian adults. European journal of clinical nutrition, 64(6), 569-577.
  5. Goyal, S. K., & Goyal, R. K. (2010). Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) a bio-sweetener: a review.

 

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