Low fat, low sugar, low salt, whole grain, gluten free, organic, natural, low carb: these are just a fraction of the adjectives you see splashed around food products in the grocery store today. In the food industry, food manufacturers have one goal–and unfortunately it’s not the health of their consumers. Profit is the name of the game; but because consumers are becoming more food-savvy, food manufacturers have had to step up their marketing game in order to sell otherwise normal products. Splenda comes with antioxidants; chocolate milk has omega-3 fatty acids; water can now put your to sleep. Keep an eye out for these five food products that aren’t as healthy as they seem:
1. Better’n Peanut Butter
Better’n Peanut Butter is marketed as a low-fat, low-calorie, “diet” peanut butter spread. It contains 85% less fat and 40% fewer calories than regular peanut butter. But taking an already healthy, whole foods product, taking away its satiating and heart-healthy fats, and adding highly processed ingredients is not an improvement, by any means. At around 180 calories per two tablespoons, peanut butter is absolutely an energy-dense food–but every single one of those calories is high quality and satisfying. Better’n Peanut Butter’s 100 calories of processed paste (with fillers like tapioca syrup, dehydrated cane juice, rice syrup, glycerin, and tapioca starch) doesn’t match up in taste or nutrition, potentially setting you up for cravings and overeating down the line. And for the record: when a high-fat food is converted into a low-fat version of itself, it’s usually pumped full of extra carbs, sugars, and fillers to make up for the loss of taste and consistency (Better’n Peanut Butter contains 13 grams of empty carbs; regular peanut butter contains just four carbs, two of which are fiber). Stick with regular peanut butter–just keep portion sizes in check.
Healthy Alternative: Regular peanut butter made with two ingredients: peanuts and salt
2. Who-Nu Nutritious Cookies
From the front of a box, you’d think you’re reading the label of a superfood: “As much fiber as a bowl of oatmeal! As much calcium and vitamin D as a glass of milk! As much vitamin C as a cup of blueberries!” But eating Who-Nu Nutrition-Rich cookies certainly won’t give you any of the same health benefits as eating oatmeal, milk, or blueberries. These aren’t cookies made with wholesome ingredients; they’re made with processed flour, corn syrup, and additives, making them no healthier than eating an Oreo along with a multivitamin. Plus, added vitamins and minerals aren’t absorbed by the body in the same way that vitamins and minerals from whole foods are: vitamins and minerals from whole foods are naturally packaged alongside other nutrients, like phytonutrients, cofactors, and enzymes, that maximize their absorption. Cookies are fine in moderation, but take them for what they are: dessert.
Healthy Alternative: Regular or homemade cookies, in moderation
3. Fat-free Salad Dressings
Recently, salads have been made out to be the enemy in fast food restaurants: news sites decried McDonald’s Caesar Salad for being more fatty than their burger; Shape Magazine lists “12 Salads Worse Than A Big Mac,” and Eat This, Not That! slams “The Worst Salads in America.” And it’s true: these salads are packed with fat and calories, hitting the 1,600 calorie and 121-grams-of-fat range. But while salad dressings are partly to blame, add-ons like fried chicken, cheesy croutons, deep-fried tortilla shells, and sour cream also beef up the calories. Reaching for fat-free salad dressings isn’t the answer; vegetables contain fat-soluble nutrients like vitamins A and K and lycopene that require fat to be absorbed. Plus, fat-free salad dressings, like reduced-fat or “diet” peanut butter, use fillers and added sugars to make up for lost taste. In the toss-up between 120 calories of olive oil, lemon juice and herbs and 35 calories of sugar, sugar alternatives, artificial flavorings, and additives, go with the former.
Healthy Alternative: Homemade salad dressings; or look for store bought dressings made with as few ingredients as possible
4. 100 Calorie Snack Packs
100 Calorie Packs are supposedly a dieter’s dream — they offer built-in portion control for easy-to-overeat snack foods. And the diet market has certainly eaten them up; they’re now part of a $200 million industry. But just because they’re 100 calories doesn’t make them healthy. Most 100 Calorie snack packs are comically small portions of processed foods like Chips Ahoy, Oreos, Cheez-Its, even Hostess cupcakes–and they still contain the same unhealthy ingredients as their full-size counterparts. They’re short on hunger-quashing nutrients like fiber, protein, and healthy fats and high in sugar, saturated fats, and refined flours–ingredients that will spike insulin levels and leave you just as hungry as before. Plus, they’re not even economically advantageous: snack packs can cost more than three times per ounce than full-size versions. You can still snack on 100 calorie portions; just make your own with healthful, wholesome ingredients like nuts, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Healthy Alternative: 100 calories of unprocessed food, preferably high in protein, fiber, or healthy fats
5. Enhanced Water
Vitamin Water XXX claims to “help fight free radicals and help support your body;” Dream Water supposedly helps you to relax and fall asleep. Even with health claims from boosting your immune system to heightening passion, enhanced waters (also called fitness water, functional water, or fortified water) are little more than water with the same vitamins you could get with a multivitamin (or better: real food) and trendy, buzzword ingredients. But for the most part, the efficacy — and safety — of these ingredients aren’t yet backed by science. Look out for added sugars (Vitamin Water has more than twice the amount of sugar in a can of soda), which might be hiding under names like crystalline fructose and fruit juice concentrate. If regular, free water is too boring, flavor it with sliced cucumbers or citrus, berries, or herbs.
Healthy Alternative: Regular water; tea