Recently the watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest warned consumers about deceptive foods, such as a "cherry, berry blast" drink that contains zero cherries, and a "carrot cake mix" made with carrot-flavored pieces rather than real carrots. If you're not careful, it's easy to get fooled by seemingly healthy foods. Here are two key tricks to help you decide whether a grocery item deserves a spot in your cart:
Read the Ingredient List
Above calories, trans-fat, sugar and sodium, this is by far the most important thing to look for on a food label. Regardless of the name of the product, photos or illustrations, and claims, the only way to really know what's in any package is to find out what it's made from. My rule of thumb is that ingredients should read like a recipe: If you see any words you don't recognize or couldn't buy to use in a recipe, there is probably a healthier option. When I take my clients to the supermarket, the ingredient reveal often surprises them. Foods they assumed were super clean and healthy (sometimes because the word healthy is on the front of the box) often contain ingredients that read like a science experiment. Case in point - one popular fruity cereal bar made with whole grains and fruit puree also contains refined flour, high-fructose corn syrup, and artificial flavor.
Check the Serving Size
Even if a food is made with super healthy ingredients, your idea of a reasonable serving may be different from what's stated on the label. One day I spotted some beautiful oat muffins with a stellar ingredient list, but the serving size was one quarter of a muffin, which means the whole thing packed four times more calories than the label stated. Another common example is bottled drinks. Generally 4 to 6 ounces of fruit or veggie juice is the equivalent to one cup of fresh fruit, so a 16-ounce "green drink" may contain the equivalent of 5 to 6 cups of fresh produce, which is probably more than you would eat at one time. Some of my clients think, "Great, more produce is a good thing," or "I've got everything I need for the day in one bottle." The trouble is, any time you take in more carbs in one sitting than your body can use at that moment, the excess gets sent straight to your fat cells. In other words, you can get too much of a good thing, and unneeded carbs from pure organic fruit juice and 100 percent whole grains can feed your fat stores or plump them up even more.
What do you think? Have you ever been surprised by the ingredients in a seemingly healthy food? Do you check the servings per container on healthy items? Please share your thoughts or tweet them to @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine!
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.