How many times have you gone to the supermarket looking for something you knew wasn’t really healthy for you? Did you pick up the reduced-fat version of it? Even if it’s not something you’ve done, others have. “Reduced-fat” products are among many a marketing scheme to get consumers to think they’re eating healthier, but are they really? Here are six products you probably expected to be healthier than they actually are.
Meal replacement bars, snack bars, and energy bars. All of them claim to be healthful, but in reality, eating them is more like eating a plain candy bar. For one, the soy base that most protein bars are made of have had all of their nutrients stripped away during the production process, according to PBS. What was once full of fiber, calcium, iron, potassium, folate, and B vitamins, usually gets reduced to only the soy protein. In itself, soy protein is made through a chemical process that starts with removing fat from the soybeans using hexane, a product of petroleum refining that can cause some mild central nervous system effects.
On top of that, some of them are loaded with high fructose corn syrup, added sugar, hydrogenated oils, and saturated fat. Some of them can have as many as 350 calories — way more than a typical snack, according to Cooking Light magazine. Unless you’re planning on an intense workout, skip the protein bars, and eat a quarter-cup of trail mix — the one without the candy — or 1.5 ounces of low-fat cheese and four small whole-grain crackers. At the very least, check nutrition labels.
Light Yogurt is Heavy in Other Things
Yogurt is great, and some of them contain beneficial probiotics, the gut bacteria that can help treat a range of conditions from upper respiratory illness to irritable bowel syndrome, NPR reported. But even with attempts to make yogurt healthier — Yoplait removed high fructose corn syrup from its products in 2012 and stopped using cow’s milk not treated with rbGH in 2009 — light versions still contain up to 30 grams of sugar, as well as artificial flavoring and coloring.
For this reason, many people have turned to Greek yogurt. Although it may contain a bit more calories, it comes with far less sugar and a lot more protein — eight grams in some cases. If you’re looking for calcium, plant-based sources could be a good alternative, as cow’s milk can be hard on the body.
“Cow’s milk does in fact have a lot of calcium in it, but much of it is not easily assimilated or used by the body,” Kim Snyder, a celebrity nutritionist, told Time. “There is a lot of phosphorus in dairy products that binds to the calcium in our digestive tracts and makes most of the calcium impossible to absorb. Plus, dairy products are extremely acidic in the body. An increased acid load in the body causes you to lose calcium from your bones.”
Snyder recommended eating leafy greens, nuts, seeds, coconut yogurt, or chia seed pudding, all of which are easy to digest.
Just because athletes market these doesn’t mean they’re healthy. In fact, they’re really only useful if you’re going to be as active as the athletes. Most sports drinks, when it comes down to it, are really just flavored water mixed with sugar and electrolytes. The electrolytes, which are usually potassium and sodium, are great for intense workouts or endurance training that involve heavy sweating. If you’re going for a walk in the park or doing some light housework, water is probably best.
Sports drinks contain color additives and citric acid, both of which can stain teeth. A 2009 study found that sports drinks damaged the dentin — the tissue underneath the enamel that determines tooth shape and size — of cow’s teeth, which are similar to human teeth. “Sports drinks are very acidic drinks. When they become your soft drink, your fluid, then you run the real risk of very significant effects, such as etching the teeth and actually eroding the dentin if you have exposed roots,” Mark Wolff, professor and chairman of the Department of Cardiology and Comprehensive Care at the New York University College of Dentistry, told CNN.
Don’t Be Fooled by Multigrain and Wheat
When buying bread or any other grain product, it’s important to know the difference between whole grains and refined grains — essentially, whole wheat bread and white bread. Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel, including the bran, endosperm, and germ. Products made with whole grains are much higher in dietary fiber (an essential nutrient), and include whole-wheat flour, oatmeal, brown rice, popcorn, and quinoa. Refined grains, however, are exactly that. They are stripped of the germ and bran, which gives them finer texture and improves shelf life but reduces their nutritional value as well. Dietary fiber, iron, and B vitamins are usually added in later, which is why they’re called "enriched."
Reading ingredient lists is important when trying to determine if the bread you’re buying is 100 percent whole wheat. Simply looking at the color of the bread can be deceiving as some breads have added ingredients like molasses, which give them color. Also, don’t believe it’s healthy just because of the name. With multigrain bread, there’s no telling what grains are actually inside. Other names to watch out for include “stone-ground,” “100% wheat,” “cracked wheat,” “seven-grain,” or “bran.”
Reduced-Fat Peanut Butter
Although peanut butter may have saturated fats, it has about four times more unsaturated fats, putting it on the same health spectrum as olive oil. On top of that, it also contains fiber, some vitamins and minerals like potassium, and other nutrients. Eating peanuts or peanut butter has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Buying reduced-fat peanut butter, however, throws the balance of nutrients in the product completely off. Taking out the fat means something else needs to go in, and most cases, that’s sugar — though the carbohydrate filler, maltodextrin, may also be added. In simple versions of peanut butter, for example, there are two grams of naturally occurring sugar. In a regular jar of Jif, there are three grams of sugar. That goes up to four when the peanut butter is made reduced-fat, according to PBS. With research now showing that sugar may be worse for the body than fat, eating the regular peanut butter may be better.
Going to your local Starbucks or Jamba Juice for a smoothie may sound like a healthy alternative to breakfast for starting your day, but do you really know what’s going in your smoothie? Sure, the bases are good for you — fruits, veggies, and low-fat dairy. But if you’re getting anything over a 16-ounce size, which is already larger than it needs to be, then you’re getting too much. And that’s before including all the other added stuff, like fruit juice, which comes with added sugar, or ice cream or powders.
According to Professor Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “smoothies and fruit juices are the new danger,” he told The Guardian. He says that smoothies are not healthier than the average soda, and they don’t provide the same health benefits as eating a whole fruit.
“Think of eating one orange or two and getting filled,” Popkin said. “Now think of drinking a smoothie with six oranges and two hours later it does not affect how much you eat. The entire literature shows that we feel full from drinking beverages like smoothies but it does not affect our overall food intake, whereas eating an orange does. So pulped-up smoothies do nothing good for us, but do give us the same amount of sugar as four to six oranges or a large coke. It’s deceiving.”