Six or seven decades ago, nobody had to wonder what was going into their food. The concept of eating a healthy diet was straightforward: parents simply told kids to eat their vegetables – and obesity, heart disease, and cancer weren’t nearly as prevalent as they are today.
However, thanks to the industrialization of food manufacturing, our dietary waters have become muddied, so to speak. While obvious healthy choices include whole, unprocessed foods (such as bananas, kale, and almonds), the nutrition situation gets more confusing once we venture out of the grocer’s produce aisle.
In fact, a Nielsen study showed that 59% of consumers are confused about nutrition labels. Nielsen’s 2011 Global Survey polled 25,000 Internet respondents in 56 countries. More than half of them (53 percent) thought they were overweight and about the same number (48 percent) were trying to lose weight. Not being able to decipher the nutritional content of the foods dieters eat really handicaps the game.
Furthermore, marketing buzzwords like “clean eating” and “all-natural” aren’t regulated and could mean anything. When we see these words on processed food, we should start questioning what’s actually in the products.
To illustrate how misleading food labeling can be, this Healthy Snacks infographic looks at 11 popular snack foods and their actual ingredients. Here are the highlights and shocking proof that the foods you thought were uber-healthy maybe aren’t so much:
Granola is often oat-based so you would think it would be a very good source of fiber, iron, and stick-to-your-ribs energy – and you would be correct. But did you know that one serving size of Nature Valley Protein Oats & Honey Granola contains more sugar by weight than protein? It is also made with controversial canola oil. When manufacturers take wholesome ingredients, coat them in a sweetener such as sugar, honey, molasses, or corn syrup, and bake them in an unhealthy oil that increases the overall fat and calorie content, good nutrition goes horribly wrong.
- Reduced fat peanut butter
On paper, this sounds like a great idea: peanut butter with less fat. The trouble is that there is no calorie savings: 2 TBS of regular peanut butter has the same number of calories as its lower-fat counterpart – about 200. When food makers remove fat from a product, they add sugar and fillers (corn syrup, for example) to improve the texture and taste.
- Microwave popcorn
Popcorn is one of the mainstays of many weight-loss dieters because it is low in calories. This is true of natural popcorn but beware of brands that feature loads of artificial ingredients, sodium (salt), and trans fats. Orville Redenbacher’s Butter Popcorn has palm oil, salt, butter, and food dye added.
- Veggie chips
Vegetables are good for us, right? Therefore, a snack chip made from a veggie other than a starchy potato must be healthy – but no. All chips are deep-fried, have corn or potato flour added, and lose a lot of their nutritional value from baking or frying. The end result is a snack chip that has about the same calories as a potato chip but fewer nutrients.
- Campbell’s Soup on the Go
Mmm, mmm good? Maybe not so much. A quick check of the nutritional label on the side of a can of Campbell’s Creamy Tomato Soup on the Go reveals the shocking truth that this food is high in sodium and sugar with only a little protein.
Yogurt is another food that is extremely healthy in its natural state: plain and unadulterated. Most commercial yogurts are loaded with sugars and low on protein. Remember, “low fat” on a food label almost always means “high carbs.” Activia Probiotic Greek Nonfat Yogurt does indeed deliver probiotics and double the protein content of a regular yogurt, but the downside is the added sugar: a whopping 20 grams, more than a glazed donut from Dunkin’ Donuts contains.
- Trail mix
Trail mix is so named because it combines several high-energy foods to fuel strenuous activities such as hiking. Peanuts and raisins are favorite sources of protein and fructose, but many commercial brands include chocolate chips or other types of candy. Makers often add a coating to the mix that raises the sugar and sodium content.
- Fruit smoothie
Not all fruit smoothies are created equal. A well-balanced blender drink adds protein and fat to fruit and fiber. A Strawberry Surf Rider from Jamba Juice will fill you up with “real whole fruit,” “wholesome ingredients,” and 98 grams of sugar (!!!), 450 calories (!!!), and only 3 grams of protein. That’s more sugar than you get from drinking a Cola-Cola.
- Beef jerky
Take some meat, dry it out to preserve it and remove excess fat, and you wind up with the ultimate high-protein, low-carb snack, agree? All this is true if you make your own, but store-bought products are often treated with sodium nitrates that can raise your risk of heart disease. Check the nutrition label for added sugars, salts, MSG, and artificial flavorants before you buy.
- Protein bars
You would think that a bar advertised as containing protein to power your body would be a healthier choice than a candy bar. But you’d be wrong. The wrapper around a Chocolate Strawberry ThinkThin High Protein Bar uses large letters to promote its high protein content (20 grams), zero fat, no gluten, and low GI (glycemic index, a value assigned to foods based on how slowly or how quickly those foods cause increases in blood glucose levels). A single bar packs 250 calories, 9 grams of fat (2.5 grams saturated fat), 230 milligrams of sodium, and 24 grams of carbs (12 grams of sugar alcohol). Yes, there is zero sugar – but that gain is lost after 12 grams of sugar alcohol are added instead.
A pretzel is basically wheat flour, water, and salt – a lot of salt, it turns out. There are 450 milligrams of sodium in 17 pretzels, which is almost one-fifth – 19 percent – of the recommended daily intake (RDI). Choose pretzels made from whole wheat flour as the first listed ingredient.
Just for fun, start reading the nutrition labels on all the foods you eat regularly. You might be quite surprised at hidden dietary dangers lurking there: excess sugars, starches, preservatives, and artificial additives. Then, look for healthier substitutes so you don’t become a victim of your next snack attack.