Consumers are trying to eat healthier, and the food industry knows it. Words like natural, organic, and fortified are popping up on everything from potato chips to pie, often masking a not-so-stellar nutritional label. So Health.com spent months scouring grocery shelves to find some products that may fool even the savviest of health-conscious shoppers. These products probably wont do major diet damagebut nutritionally, they may not be all they claim to be, either. See our top 10 overrated health foods of 2009.
The company that turned heads with its lizard “Thriller” commercial in 2008 launched a no-calorie version of SoBe Lifewater, sweetened with PureVia, late last year. PureVia is touted as a natural sweetener that contains 97% Reb A, an extract from the sweetest part of the stevia plant.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Reb A, and brands such as Sprite and Tropicana have added Reb A beverages to their lines, but not everyone is convinced of its healthfulness. “Leaf extract sounds much better than chlorinating sugar or methylating a couple of amino acids,” Marion Nestle, PhD, a nutrition professor at New York University, told USA Today in December 2008. Although the term leaf extract gives off a “healthier aura”like teashe added, “whether it is, remains to be seen.” Katherine Zeratsky, RD, a specialty editor for the Food & Nutrition Center at the Mayo Clinic, suggests a healthier, cheaper option: “Take a pitcher of water and add lime rinds to it, or even slices of whole fruit.”
Yoplait Yo-Plus Blueberry Açai
This product boasts two hot health buzzwordsprobiotics and açai. Probiotics are live cultures (good bacteria) that restore the balance of bacteria in the stomach and intestine. However, there are many different strains of probiotics, and researchers are still determining exactly how each one interacts with the body. Research shows that certain strains, such as Lactobacillus GG, can reduce diarrhea. And though research suggests that probiotics may strengthen your immune functioning, most scientists agree additional research is needed.
Most yogurt has at least a small amount of good bacteria in it, which may promote gut health. Though people with digestive problems may want to seek out foods with additional probiotic claims, says Zeratsky, “For a lot of people, regular yogurt is just fine.”
The controversy over probiotic claims has even extended into the courts: Dannon settled a class-action lawsuit in September and agreed to change the labels on its Activia and DanActive yogurts from “a positive effect on your digestive tracts immune system” to “interact with your digestive tracts immune system.” (The company stands by its product claims, however.)
Shedds Spread Country Crock Calcium Plus Vitamin D
Margarine has never been known to be healthyand even adding calcium and vitamin D doesnt make it a smart buy. Yes, this product has fewer calories and saturated fat than butter and claims to have “no trans fat per serving.” However, the label may be deceiving: This spread contains partially hydrogenated soybean oil, aka trans fat, toward the top of the ingredient list.
How is this possible? If theres less than .5 grams per serving, products can claim theyre trans fat free. However, if you eat more than a servingan easy mistake when slathering it on your baked potatoyou might be getting significantly more of the dangerous fat than you bargained for.
This spread also contains calcium, but savvy consumers should note that not all fortified ingredients are absorbed the same way in the body. In fact, a 2005 study found that the various types of fortified calcium can differ drastically when it come to how the body absorbs them. “Its not possible to get your calcium for the day from margarine. You have to include other calcium-rich items,” says Marisa Moore, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Natures Path Organic Frosted Toaster Pastries
The label on Natures Path Toaster Pastries says organic, but its Nutrition Facts label proves that its not the healthiest breakfast choice. One pastry contains 200 calories and 2.5 grams of saturated fat, yet only 1 gram of fiber and 3 grams of protein. And with 19 grams of sugars, this breakfast may set you up for a midmorning crash.
Quaker Fiber and Omega-3 Peanut Butter Chocolate Bars
Fiber and omega-3 fatty acids are nutrients that everyone should try to include in his diet, but Quakers bars arent the best way to get them. “Its fine that food manufacturers are fortifying foods, but dont rely on chocolate-covered granola bars that are fortified while skipping the fruit, veggies, and whole-grain bread,” says Zeratsky.
This 150-calorie bar gets its omega-3s from über-healthy flaxseed, but the downside is that the ingredient list on this product contains partially hydrogenated oils and plenty of exotic substances. The fiber comes from oligofructose, a type of sugar not digested in the small intestine, which reduces its caloric value and ability to spike blood sugar. That may seem like a good thing, but it may also cause digestive discomfort in some people. And though each bar has 9 grams of fiber, it is low in protein and essential vitamins.
“Natural was the most popular label claim in 2008, and people assume that if its natural, its healthy,” says Moore. Although this 12-ounce soft drink is made with sparkling water and kola-nut extract, it still contains 150 calories and 38 grams of sugarapproximately the same as regular Pepsi.
A large 2004 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that women who drank one soda or fruit punch a day gained more weight over a four-year period and had an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes than women who drank less than one a month. The bottom line: Youre better off with water, tea, or fruit juice.
Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Garden Cheddar
Earlier this year, researchers at Ohio State University found that children were only getting about 2 cups of fruits and veggies a day, on average. (The 2005 USDA guidelines recommend 1–2 cups of fruit and 1–3 cups of veggies daily, depending on the childs age.) So the label on Pepperidge Farms Garden Cheddar Goldfish stating “1/3 serving real vegetables in each serving” must seem like music to parents ears.
However, the dehydrated veggie blend of peas, carrots, and more, is only the fifth ingredient. And a serving contains only 2% of vitamin A, 1 gram of fiber, and no vitamin Cnot what you would expect from a partial serving of veggies. Washington Post contributor Jennifer LaRue Huget summed it up best by writing, “Why not serve a handful of, say, pizza-flavored Goldfishwhich...have the added benefit of actually tasting goodplus a handful of baby carrots?”
“Even though a product may only have a few ingredients, that doesnt mean its healthy. A five-ingredient ice cream may still be loaded with calories and artery-clogging saturated fat,” says Dallas-based nutritionist Jennifer Neily, RD. Indeed, the description of Häagen-Dazs Five states “all-natural ice cream crafted with only five ingredients for incredibly pure, balanced flavor, and surprisingly less fat!” However, these iced treats still contain cream, sugar, and egg yolks, not to mention 220 calories and 7 grams of saturated fat per serving. In this case, simple doesnt mean nutritious.
Cheerios may not be a new product, but the cereal did make headlines this May when the FDA wrote a letter to General Mills regarding claims that eating the cereal can help you lower your cholesterol by 4% in 6 weeks. “Cheerios is made with whole grains, yes, and I do believe that eating them daily will probably lower your cholesterolbut probably only if you were previously eating croissants, Dunkin Donuts, or McDonalds every morning instead,” Julie Upton, RD, antioxidants will help kids stay healthy. However, critics are calling foul. “By their logic, you can spray vitamins on a pile of leaves, and it will boost immunity,” Kelly Brownell, PhD, the director of Yale Universitys Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, told USA Today in November 2009. The company discontinued the label in early November, but kept the added nutrition. Even with the added vitamins, there are still 12 grams of sugars, only 1 gram of protein, and less than 1 gram of fiber per 3/4 cup servingnot the best way to start your day.