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10 Foods That Aren’t As Healthy As You Thought

Low-fat, protein-rich, high-in-fiber and whole-wheat foods have a reputation for being “healthy” and good-for-you bites, but in reality these marketing words may be doing more harm than good to your body.

It’s scary to think that brands are touting these labels as the best healthy options, when really many of them can mean the opposite. While some may advertise a “heart healthy” ingredient(s) that could actually prevent heart disease, other ingredients often include sugar, salt and other bad for-taste additions that contradict that one good component.

Annie Lawless, co-founder of Suja Juice and certified holistic health coach, sees what people put in their bodies and wants to help others understand that a label is not what it’s really all out to be. “A lot of people don’t read nutrition labels or really even know how to/what to look for, but they trust when a food is marketed as ‘natural’ and given a healthy connotation,” she explains. “People think certain cereals, like Special K, are healthy because all of their marketing is centered around weight loss and meal replacement. They assume 100 calorie packs are healthy without considering that the food inside is still an Oreo or Cheez-It. Marketing is an extremely powerful tool that can skew a consumer’s perception immensely.”

Here are some precautions to consider when buying any of these shelf favorites:

Commercial Nut Butters

A jar of Jif Almond Butter not only contains inorganic roasted almonds, which have been heated well beyond the temperature of retaining nutrients, but it also has hydrogenated rapeseed, cottonseed and soybean oils, as well as loads of salt. A jar of Jif Peanut Butter has all that plus sugar, molasses and other chemicals for flavor. The reduced-fat version has corn syrup solids and sugar, as well as a number of other add-ins. Jif’s friendly shelf neighbor, Skippy, isn’t so hot either.

Consider: An organic, unroasted version that, yes, might be a bit more pricey than the readily available Jif or Skippy brands. 

Agave Nectar

Agave nectar seems natural because it comes from the cactus plant; therefore, it would appear to be healthier than high-fructose corn syrup. However, this isn’t necessarily correct. Agave comprises more fructose than any other sweetener (70 to 98 percent!), while high-fructose corn syrup is about 55 percent. Fructose in concentrated amounts is dangerous because it is metabolized much differently than glucose. Like alcohol, fructose is entirely broken down in the liver—while only about 20 percent of glucose is—and directly converted to the type of fat that is stored in the belly. Belly fat is the most threatening type of fat to heart health. Fructose consumption is at an all-time high because of its prevalence in processed foods.

Consider: A dab of real raw honey, which hasn’t been plagued with additives.

Egg Whites

Egg whites provide zero nutrition other than protein. The yolks provide 100 percent of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, plus calcium, iron, zinc, biotin, thiamin, folate, and B vitamins 6 and 12. Additionally, research has shown just the whites can have the same, if not worse, metabolic effect on insulin and blood sugar levels as a carbohydrate because they don’t have the fat from the yolk to help slow down the absorption of protein.

Consider: The whole egg!

Acai Bowls

There are tons of acai bowl shops gaining popularity all over the states, and many are glorified non-dairy, fro-yo cup with toppings (womp womp!). Their base is blended acai pulp, which seems innocent enough, and yes, the acai fruit is very high in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, so that seems great. Plus, it’s also pretty low in sugar. However, many shops don’t use an unsweetened acai, and the toppings can be a nightmare; plain acai doesn’t taste as wondrous without them. Acai bowls have a blending liquid (fruit juice or a milk of some sort), and toppings range from sugary granola, scoops of nut butters, honey, agave, coconut, banana, dried fruit or cacao. That’s a lot of stuff in an innocent little bowl many people would eat for a snack. One bowl can pack more calories than a Big Mac! (What!)

Consider: This recipe.

Bran Muffins

Bran is the outer layer of grains, like wheat, rice and oats. You may have heard that oat bran offers high fiber, protein, low-glycemic carbohydrates and vitamins—super healthy for you. So bran—on its own—must be great. That’s why a bran muffin may seem like a better choice than the blueberry muffin with cinnamon sugar streusel on top, right? Unless you made it yourself at home, this is not the case. Many bran muffins only have a little bit of bran and are made with regular wheat flour to combat the dry and tasteless taste of real bran. At Dunkin Donuts, you can get a “healthy” bran muffin, but this has nearly 500 calories and 46 grams of sugar, while a glazed donut has 260 calories and 12 grams of sugar.

Consider: The all-natural OJ Blueberry muffins!

Raw Sugar

The name can be misleading. All sugar is made from boiling the cane, concentrating it, and purifying the juice—therefore it’s not exactly raw. If it weren’t, you’d be eating cane stalks. “Raw sugar” is just purified a bit less than white sugar, so a little more molasses is retained on the crystals, leaving them with a slightly browner color. However, molasses is just sugar too! Raw sugar hasn’t gone through as much stripping to leave it completely molasses free and white, but there is nothing advantageous about that. In short, raw sugar really doesn’t offer more healthy benefits than normal white sugar.

Consider: Stevia, a plant-based alternative to sugar with way less calories. It also doesn’t affect blood sugar levels nearly as drastically when added or used in food.

Soy Milk

For the lactose-intolerant, soy milk is pushed as the go-to dairy milk alternative. First of all, more than 90 percent of soy beans grown in the United States are genetically modified. Soy milk is sometimes made from soy bean alternatives. When that happens, it’s made from a soy protein or isolate, which is a heavily processed, heated and refined product. Additionally, sipping soy milk can have adverse effects on your hormones. Humans aren’t meant to consume such large quantities of soy because it contains phytoestrogens, which some studies suggest have connections to endometriosis. Also, most soy milks have added sugars like “evaporated cane juice” or “rice syrup” and it also has major additives to extend its shelf life.

Consider: Almond or coconut milk.

Granola Bars

Like bran muffins, granola bars usually seem like a good concept. Oats, seeds and fruits are healthy, so put them in granola bars to make the ultimate health snack, right? Unfortunately, that is not the case. Most granola bars have added sugary syrup and/or high-sugar dried fruit to make it stick together. Not to mention some brands add chocolate chips or a caramel drizzle, which is additional unhealthy sugar. The labels and marketing fool you to think you’re eating an all-natural snack; high-maltose corn syrup and maltodextrin are made from adding acid to corn starch in a lab and definitely don’t exist in nature.

Consider: Bars with a clean label, i.e. less ingredients and ones you can pronounce.

Whole Wheat Bread

If you have Celiac Disease then you don’t eat wheat at all, but if you don’t have sensitivity, wheat bread should be a healthy choice, especially when labeled 100 percent whole wheat. However, even when labeled heart healthy and whole wheat, most breads are made with high-fructose corn syrup, soy bean oil, cottonseed oil, mono and diglycerides, mono and diglycerides ethoxylated, preservatives, dairy and many more additives!

Consider: Ezekial sprouted grain bread. It really is whole grains, not flour, and there’s nothing added in the way of sweetness, preservatives or additives.

Greek Yogurt

Greek yogurt is made by straining the whey (liquid) out of the yogurt, which leaves it thicker, higher in protein, and lower in sugar and carbs than regular yogurt. The problem with commercial Greek yogurts is there is no FDA regulation in place for what can be called “Greek.” Because of this, it can contain unhealthy ingredients like any other yogurt and can also undergo a different process than the true Greek straining method that the name “Greek yogurt” entails. Across brands, the protein content differs vastly because some aren’t as strained as others; they appear thicker because they add thickeners, like modified cornstarch, as well as protein concentrates to give it consistency. What’s more—many are loaded with sugar.

Consider: An unsweetened, plain version with 17 to 18 grams of protein per 6 ounces to get the real deal.

How to Determine if the Food Item Is Healthy

If there are ingredients that aren’t related to the food itself on the label, it’s likely processed and should be avoided,” says Lawless. “For example, if you’re buying packaged turkey meat, the label should read turkey and salt. If there are a few chemical names, like nitrates and phosphates, that have nothing to do with turkey, you know it’s not in its natural state.”

If there is sugar content in the ingredient list, then that’s a sign that the food has been processed. “Most foods with added sugars have ingredients ending with –ose, like maltose, fructose, dextrose and sucrose. Avoid foods with high-fructose corn syrup, which is often genetically modified and highly processed.

Fara Rosenzweig

Fara Rosenzweig

Fara Rosenzweig is a writer, editor, and certified personal trainer. She got her first taste of the gym at age 14 and fell in love with the fitness crowd. After suffering a back injury her freshman year of college, she had to set her ballet slippers aside and rehab her back. That’s when she found her passion for teaching fitness and helping others challenge themselves. Her senior year of college she ran in her first 5K and traded her ballet slippers for the latest (and brightest) pair of running shoes. Fara loves talking health, sports and fitness with any one and everyone. Her love for storytelling earned her an Emmy Award and has been seen in many other publications, such as Refinery29, Active.com, MyFitnessPal and Health.