Healthy Food Claims That Aren't Healthy

 

Don't be fooled by these healthy-sounding buzzwords — they're not as waist-whittling as you might think.

 

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As you stroll through the grocery store aisles, you might notice that a lot of the food packages have healthy-sounding buzzwords plastered on them, just begging you to notice how good they are for you. But just because they sound healthy doesn't mean they are. Find out which seven terms give foods a health halo they don't necessarily deserve.

Fat-Free

When food manufacturers take away the fat, they have to replace it with something else — and that something else is usually sugar. That's why during the fat-phobic '90s, Americans chowed down on sugar and other carbs at unprecedented levels (and gained the weight to prove it). Fat helps food taste good and also makes it satiating, so if you go for a fat-free processed food (like a cookie), chances are it's going to be far less satisfying then the real deal (and you might end up eating more to compensate). Stick to naturally fat-free foods (like fruit) if you're looking for a low-cal snack, and use fat when it's needed (like in salad dressings or, yes, cookies).

With Antioxidants

The best sources of antioxidants are foods that don't even have a label, like fruits and vegetables. So if the food label of a chocolate-drizzled chewy bar or a sugary cereal claims that it's high in antioxidants, don't be fooled into thinking it's a health food. Read the ingredients and you'll see that it's likely still packed with many kinds of sugar, food dyes and artificial flavoring.

High in Fiber

Fiber is important for many aspects of your health: It helps you maintain a healthy weight, improves digestion and can keep blood sugar levels stable. But just because a food product is high in fiber doesn't mean it's good for you. Many products (like cereals or bars) add "functional fibers" to boost fiber content. But these foods are often loaded with sugar and other additives to make sure they don't taste like cardboard. Rely on whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables instead of "fiber-added" foods for the bulk of your fiber intake.

Less Sugar

You know eating too many added sugars can cause weight gain and may even lead to diabetes or heart disease. But going for an alternative with "less sugar" might not necessarily be healthier. Rather than simply cutting down the sugar in these products (such as dried cranberries, fruit juices and granola bars), food manufacturers replace part of the added sugar with sugar substitutes. This is particularly misleading in the case of juice drinks that boast less sugar and fewer calories — these are just watered-down juices that have a sugar substitute added. Stick to foods such as fruit that have natural sugars and tons of other good-for-you nutrients, such as vitamins, phytochemicals and fiber.

Gluten-Free

Gluten is a protein found in wheat and some other grains. People who are allergic to gluten (for example, those who have celiac disease) or have gluten sensitivity absolutely need to avoid gluten. But for people without those conditions, eating something that is gluten-free doesn’t necessarily mean it is healthier, especially if you're simply swapping processed gluten-containing foods for processed gluten-free foods. Case in point: Potato chips are gluten-free.

Natural

As more people get interested in minimally processed whole foods, food manufacturers have started changing their formulas and dubbing their products "all-natural." Although this term does mean that there are no artificial ingredients in the product (the term is regulated by the USDA), that doesn't mean the food product is necessarily healthful. Everything from sugary granola bars to Cheetos now come in "all-natural" formulations, but that doesn't make them health foods.

Organic

Many unhealthy foods are labeled as organic, and in a 2011 Cornell University study, participants ranked foods identified as organic with higher marks. People rated the "organic" cookies and potato chips healthier, tastier and lower in calories than non-organic ones. In this case, the products were actually identical, proving that the term "organic" elevates even the junkiest of junk food products. If you prefer buying organic foods, there's no need to stop: Just keep in mind that an organic cookie is still a cookie.