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By Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD
While it’s best to choose fresh foods as they appear in nature, life can get in the way — and sometimes it’s necessary to turn to packaged and processed items.
But when it comes to these snacks and treats, there’s a lot of competition and labels claiming a variety of health benefits. In reality, many of these products are anything but nutritious.
Here are some prime examples of foods with a “health halo” — items that sound like healthy choices, but really have an ingredient list that’s less than ideal.
Remember that potatoes are also a vegetable chip! Adding more colorful vegetables to the fryer doesn’t help much. The calories and nutrient density is similar. The key to smart eating with chips is portion control. Buy single serving bags, or stick with a handful. Vegetable chips aren’t a swap for a serving of vegetables, no matter what the package looks like.
Top tip: Try air-popped popcorn.
While wholesome ingredients (grains, dried fruits, nuts) are part of most granola mixtures, there’s often a lot of added sugars and fats. The high calorie cost (a ¼ cup serving often has more than 100 calories) is not worth the small nutrient contribution. Read the labels carefully, and think of granola as a small topping to yogurt, cottage cheese or low-sugar whole grain cereals (like oats).
Top tip: Downsize the serving to a tablespoon or two as a fun topping.
The green color looks healthy, but don’t look for a serving of vegetables here. There’s only trace amounts of spinach and such wraps are typically made with processed, refined grains — meaning no fiber or calorie savings. And one wrap can really be four “standardized servings.” Look for 100 percent, whole grain small wraps (or cut one in half). Also, look for alternatives, like thin-sliced multi-grain breads or 100-calorie slim buns.
Top tip: Load up your sandwich with fresh vegetables and skip the vegetable wrap.
It’s not yogurt coating those essentially healthy raisins, but a blend that only adds sugar and calories. If you enjoy them, choose them as an alternative to candy that you eat occasionally, but don’t consider them a healthful snack.
Top tip: Try a handful of plain raisins or frozen grapes.
A sweetener derived from a plant, like agave, sounds healthy, but cane sugar (white sugar) also comes from a plant — sugar cane! A high-sugar food remains high, whether the sweetener is sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, molasses, agave, brown rice syrup, honey or evaporated cane syrup. Our bodies “see” and process them in the same way. Choose any added-sugar foods with portion size and frequency in mind.
Top Tip: Keep track of portion sizes with all sugary foods. Count all types of sugars in your daily intake, not just white sugar.
Coconuts produce oil, just like every other variety of nut in nature. But it’s unusual because the oil (fat) from a coconut is artery-clogging saturated fat. Unlike other plant-based oils, coconut oil is solid (like lard and butter) at room temperature. While coconut oil is praised for its flavor and cooking heartiness (it doesn’t burn easily), it’s not considered a heart-healthy fat. For consumption, this means limit (not eliminate) it as you would for other saturated fat sources like fatty red meats, butter, lard and full fat dairy. And the calories for all fats are the same (around 120 calories per tablespoon), whether saturated or unsaturated vegetable fats and their oils — like olive, avocado, walnut and corn.
Top Tip: Use as an indulgent ingredient for specific flavor, not a swap for a heart healthy vegetable oil.
The key to healthier eating is to be an informed consumer. Choose to read ingredient labels for portion size and nutrients, and you’ll always make a better choice!
Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD is the NBC News Health Editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.