Healthy living is extremely convoluted these days. With buzz words like “dairy free” and “gluten-free” on the shelves, it makes the buyer think that what they are reaching for is the healthier option. When in fact, it may be just as bad. As individuals we can get lost in the mass amount of information when we are trying to live a healthy lifestyle.
One of the best ways to avoid this is to focus on eating wholesome, fresh foods. Foods that come from the produce and butcher section, as opposed to the freezer aisle or shelving section, are hardly processed, if at all. However we know that life doesn’t work perfectly that way and other ingredients are always necessary.
When a food is called healthy, but contains tons of additives and ingredients that you can’t even pronounce, then it is not healthy at all. By a long shot. Processed sugars, oils, fats, and flavors are still in those “healthy” foods that are being sold. However, they are hidden well. Oreos are technically vegan…does that mean they are good for you?
When looking at a nutrition label, most people think it’s important to look at the calories, fats, sugars, etc. This is because we are often taught that “fats are bad” or “sugar is evil”. However, the ingredients list is just as important as anything else on the nutrition label. Those calories, fats, and sugars are all made up of the ingredients that are in that product. This is important even for health food stores and products. There are sneaky ingredients in “healthy” packaged foods that may not be great for you.
Let’s go over some of the main ones that you will see on the shelves in any grocery store these days.
“No Sugar Added” – Sugar Alcohols
Sugar alcohols are an ingredient that are commonly used. People see things marked as “no sugar” and reach for it! Sugar alcohols are popular because they are low on the glycemic index (a ranking of carbohydrates and their effect on blood sugar levels). Being low on the glycemic index means that sugar alcohols are digested and metabolized at slower rates and cause a slower rise in blood sugar levels. However, sugar alcohols still should not be consumed in large amounts. They can be irritating to the gut; research has shown that xylitol can cause gas and bloating.
Sugar alcohols include erythritol, mannitol, and sorbitol; take note if you see those on the ingredients list. You will typically find sugar alcohols in packaged food or drinks (and gum) labeled “sugar-free.” A healthier alternative to sugar alcohols is the sugar substitute stevia.
“Dairy Free” – Carrageenan, Palm oil, etc.
The trend from dairy products to dairy-free products can be seen throughout health stores. While this is great for the environment and for some people’s health, the issue we see in it is that there are usually many unknown additives in dairy-free products. Carrageenan is similar to guar gum in that it’s used as an emulsifying agent. It’s found in a lot of dairy-free milk alternatives like almond milk, coconut milk, and soy milk.
Carrageenan is made from red seaweed and has a specific chemical structure that gives it a gelling effect so it creates smooth textures and emulsifies food products that would naturally separate—like dairy-free milks. A recent study has found that carrageenan may increase intestinal inflammation and disrupt digestion.
“Dairy-free” butters are also on the list to watch out for. Although these are great alternatives for vegans and dairy intolerant folks, these alternatives are substituted with several different kinds of oils and additives. Most dairy free butters are made from a blend of palm fruit, canola, soybean, flax, and olive oils and also contain salt, natural flavor, soy protein, soy lecithin, lactic acid, and annatto extract. These are all very foreign to the body and extremely processed. We suggest going for a less processed oil such as coconut oil, olive oil, or avocado oil as these are not extremely processed and can be processed easily in the body,
Marketing is smart. The word “natural” is often on packaged products. There are few regulations, however, related to the term’s use. “Natural” flavors may contain artificial and synthetic components. It’s hard to know if they are safe for you if you don’t know what they are. You can’t assume a naturally flavored product is healthy. You will find natural flavors in a wide-variety of packaged and processed foods. Without market regulation “natural” flavors can mean just about anything!
Bottled Juices and Smoothies
“Even though they’re packed with healthy nutrients like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, juices are loaded with sugar, even the natural occurring ones in fruit. Juicing extracts all of the fiber in fruits and vegetables that help you feel full, helps process the sugar, and condenses a large amount of sugar in one small bottle that’s too easy to drink in one sitting,” says nutritionist Rania Batayneh, M.P.H. Ideally, it should only contain one serving of fruit. The rest should be veggies.
Juice, even brands that are fresh-pressed or squeezed, is loaded with tons of sugar and carbs. The all-important fiber is missing, and that’s just a shame! In fact, when processed into juice, a piece of fruit like an orange or an apple changes from something good to eat into a fake healthy food. Did you know, to get the same amount of fiber found in one apple (skin on, of course!), you have to drink 8 cups of juice? Now, that’s a lot of sugar, even if it is naturally occurring fruit sugar.
The one and only option is to skip the juice altogether and eat a piece of fruit and pair it up with a glass of water! This will keep you fuller WAY longer than a smoothie or juice will.
A lot of people choose multi-grain or seven-grain breads because they think they’re more nutrient-dense. The reality: Most of these breads still list unbleached enriched wheat flour as the first ingredient. Sure, these breads may also contain whole grains, but they’re more an afterthought than the main event.
Avoid breads that have the word “enriched” at the top of the ingredient list. The word means they stripped the grains of its nutrients during processing and then added them back to make up for the deficit. This means that even Multi-grain bread is EXTREMELY processed! Choose breads that list whole grains as the first ingredient, or reach for a sourdough that has been fermented by a starter.
Yogurt is considered one of the best foods for you because of the probiotics it contains and its effects on your digestive system. The gut and intestines do benefit from healthy bacteria for sure, but what about the other ingredients in flavored yogurt? High amounts of sugar or artificial sweeteners far outweigh the benefits of protein that yogurt provides, making not all yogurt good for you. Not only is it high in sugar, it’s also often adorned with unhealthy toppings ranging from sugary syrupy fruits to crushed Oreo cookies. Yogurt-covered snacks, such as pretzels, raisins and peanuts, are also sugar traps.
Instead, indulge in a delicious serving of plain Greek yogurt. If you need a little flavor to get you going, consider cinnamon, honey or maple syrup.
We’ve seen a rise in marketing that sugar will give you diabetes or lead to severe health issues. While there is a correlation with a diet that is in a surplus and eats high amounts of sugar to diabetes, the switch from fruits or natural forms of sugar to “sugar-free” products can be a dangerous trap.
Agave nectar is often used as a substitute. The health of agave nectar is debatable. It’s a syrup that comes from the agave plant that is used as a “healthier” alternative to sugar. But is it that much healthier? Agave has a very high fructose (naturally occurring sugar, sometimes called a fruit sugar) content, which can be dangerous for the liver. Glucose can be broken down into energy by almost every cell in the body, but fructose can only be processed by liver cells.
Because of how fructose is broken down by the liver, this puts the liver at risk for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. This is because the liver uses fructose to create fat during a process called lipogenesis.This process creates fat buildup in liver cells and, over time, the liver of someone consuming too much fructose will look similar to the liver of someone who drinks too much alcohol.
Fructose occurs naturally in fruits, but fruits have natural fibers that help break down the sugars.
Maple syrup and raw honey are healthier alternatives to agave nectar!
Nut butters are a great item to include in your daily diet. However, it’s essential to buy nut butter that is just that – nuts. There is no need for unnecessary ingredients like palm oil, sugar, or molasses. You may think that throwing almond butter in your grocery cart is a good thing, and it can be if you check the label!
Try making your own nut butter! You can roast any nut of your choosing for 10 minutes then put them into a food processor or blender and blend until smooth (takes several minutes).
Whether you’re sprinkling granola on your yogurt or snacking on a granola bar, most granola products are chock full of sugar. Sure, they start out with healthful ingredients – rolled oats, dried fruits, nuts and seeds are all wholesome, nutrient-rich ingredients. But then manufacturers take those ingredients and coat them in some sort of sweetener (sugar, molasses, honey and corn syrup are common choices) and bake them in oil.
Try muesli! Muesli is essentially all of the wholesome ingredients in granola but without the sugar and oil. Some varieties contain only nuts, seeds, rolled oats, spices and dried fruits. You can also make your own granola or granola bars, which allows you to have controlled quantities of sweetener and oil.
Diet and Fat-free ANYTHING
While a diet soft drink is not the idea of a healthy food at all, some people will choose it as an alternative to a regular soda. The common logic is that diet drinks can help you cut back on sugar, or enable you to lose weight. It’s a statement that has no merit. Diet drinks are terrible for you! Artificial sweeteners like saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame are extremely controversial sugar replacements, and there is not a single nutrient to be found. Some people will be fooled into thinking that fat-free is the best option when shopping for snacks as well, when in fact it is not. The fat is replaced with sugar and other processed oils making it worse for you than the initial fat itself. Stay away from these food entirely!
Bottom line, always look at the ingredients list on your food labels. If you’re buying anything that comes in a package, read the ingredients! Go for more whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, and grains that have no added ingredients. You won’t always be able to escape packaged foods, however you do have the choice to pick what brand you purchase from. It can be easy to forget that the health industry is an industry, so watch out for good advertising on your food that claims to be “healthy”!