One of my favorite things to do with my clients is to take them grocery shopping. For me it’s like nutrition science come to life, with hands-on examples of nearly everything I want to talk to them about. And sometimes they learn that the foods they thought were healthy are actually fooling them. Here are some examples of foods that may trick you, too:
Whole Grain Pasta
Pasta labeled ‘made with whole grains’ 'durum flour' 'durum wheat' or ‘multigrain’ does not mean that it’s whole grain. I was recently with a client in a market and she picked up her usual brand, proudly saying, “This is what I buy.” It was dark in color, and the label included the words ‘whole grain’ but when I scanned the ingredients I found that it was actually a mixture of both refined and whole grains. Look for the words 'whole durum flour' (durum is a type of wheat often used in pasta), '100 percent whole durum wheat' or ‘whole wheat flour.’ If you don’t see the terms ‘whole’ or ‘100 percent’ in front of wheat or durum, the grain has likely been processed and stripped of much of its nutrients.
Trans Fat Free Snacks
Seeing ‘trans fat free’ or ‘zero trans fat’ may seem like a green light, but there’s a loophole. Many shelf stable products require a solid fat to bind ingredients together; otherwise the oil would separate out and your cookies or crackers would turn into a pile of goo on top of a mound of oil. So, food companies found a way to create a solid fat that can be called trans-free by using fully hydrogenated rather than partially hydrogenated oil. It’s called interesterified oil, and while it’s technically trans fat-free, a Brandeis University study found that its consumption may lower HDL, the good cholesterol and cause a significant rise in blood sugar (about 20 percent). The best way to avoid both partially and fully hydrogenated oils is to read the ingredient list. Check for the H word - hydrogenated – whether partially or fully, or the new term interesterified oil.
Real Fruit Products
When you see frozen fruit bars and gummy snacks labeled ‘real fruit’ don’t confuse it with ‘all fruit.’ Real fruit just means there’s some actual fruit in the product, but it could be mixed with other additives. The only way to tell is to once again read the ingredient list. For example the second ingredient in a few popular brands of frozen fruit bars is sugar, something you might not expect by looking at the front of the package. And ‘no sugar added’ versions aren’t a better option – they often contain artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols (which can have a laxative effect – not so fun) and artificial colors.
I’m a huge supporter of organics and firmly believe they’re better for the planet, but healthwise, some organic products are still essentially processed ‘junk’ food made with organically grown ingredients. In fact organic foods like candy and sweets can contain white flour, refined sugar and even high fructose corn syrup – if it’s produced organically. In other words ‘organic’ isn’t synonymous with ‘healthy.
Bottom line: Always look past label terms and art and find out exactly what’s in any packaged food you buy. Becoming an ingredient sleuth may take a little extra time at the store but it’s the only way to really know if what you’re putting in your cart is worth putting in your body!
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.