If there’s one thing the food industry is good at, it’s nutritional sleight of hand. And while you might expect coy packaging and hidden unhealthy ingredients from the usual processed food suspects, quite a few of your favorite “healthy” foods can be deceiving, too. “Even the savviest shoppers get duped,” says Beth Reardon, M.S., R.D., director of integrative nutrition at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C. To be sure you’re eating foods that will pay you back in health benefits, you need to know what types seem healthier than they really are. Then you can toss the legitimately good-for-you stuff into your shopping cart and enjoy.
Sneaky stuff: multigrain breads, crackers, waffles, cereals
Real deal: Yes, the term “multigrain” means the product is made with more than one type of grain. “But that doesn’t mean any of those grains are whole grains or contain much fiber,” says Reardon. All or some of them may be refined or the whole grains might just be sprinkled on top for show.
Healthy hints: If you’re going to reach for multigrain foods, make sure to read the nutrition facts label carefully and look for a whole-grain flour (e.g., whole oat, whole barley or whole brown rice) as the first ingredient. What you most want to avoid is “wheat flour,” which implies a refining process that removes dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants once found in the whole grain, and therefore nixes the heart, digestive and blood sugarrelated health benefits of eating it.
Sneaky stuff: packaged kombucha and kefirs
Real deal: Live beneficial bacteria and yeast, plus a sugar source, are used to make these drinks. They are full of beneficial microorganisms and can be rich in vitamins and minerals. But in an effort to mask their naturally bitter tastes, some go into sugar overdrive. On average, each serving of most kombucha contains about 8 grams of sugar, and most kefirs have lactose bases so the yeast and bacteria in the kefir grains can feed off the milk’s natural sugars. When you add even more sugar, agave nectar or fruit flavorings, the drinks’ health benefits suffer.
Healthy hints: Opt for kombucha brands with less than 3 grams of sugar per serving. If you’re buying a dairy-based kefir, try not to exceed 10 grams (the amount of sugar is higher because of the lactose). Los Angeles-based dietitian Ashley Koff, R.D., suggests tempering your kombucha intake with cultured (fermented) vegetables and recommends coconut-water kefirs to best target digestive issues. “They’re typically lower in added sugar, provide a rich source of electrolytes and potassium, may not create mucus, and are usually nonallergenic,” she says.
Sneaky stuff: store-bought vegetable juices
Real deal: One glass can equal two full servings of vegetables— nothing wrong with that, right? Not so fast. While these juices contain some veggies, many are heavy on starchy ones like beets and carrots, and lose points for fruit concentrates, sugar and salt, which are added for flavor. Plus, if it isn’t organic, you’re swigging a concentrated source of potentially pesticide-laden produce.
Healthy hints: Make your own juice using a blender to keep as much fiber intact as possible. Combine a head of kale with 1 lemon, 1∕8 cup freshly chopped ginger, 1 beet or apple and 4 to 6 stalks of celery (all should be organic). If you do go for bottled juice, look for the same quality ingredients you’d choose at home: organic vegetables, fruits and spices—with no fruit flavors, vegetable colorings, added sugar sources or unnecessary extras like high-fructose corn syrup or zinc oxide. Also, one serving shouldn’t exceed 15 grams of total carbs.