Do you automatically assume that muesli or frozen yoghurt is healthy? Learn how to read the label to make healthy food choices.
If you’re trying to eat clean, some products that you consider healthy may not be as healthy as you think. Before you go food shopping, be sure that the selections you make are, indeed, healthy ones.
“Health food … is very broad”, warns research scientist Dr Courtney Pinard, “and can range from very specific gimmicky products to foods that are actually healthy and beneficial”.
To help ensure the foods you choose are healthy options, we asked doctors, dietitians and nutrition professionals to highlight what we should look for as we navigate health food store aisles.
“There are a variety of these fried snacks made from vegies such as squash, sweet potato, et cetera”, says dietitian Tristaca Caldwell. “They are marketed as a healthy alternative to potato chips, but often have just as many calories [kilojoules], sodium [salt] and fat as potato chips”.
But you don’t need to give them up completely. “These vegie chips should be treated the same as potato chips in our diet: sparingly for enjoyment, not regularly consumed”, recommends Caldwell.
Try savoury snacks such as edamame or kale chips. Check the fat and salt content of all processed snacks, and avoid trans fats.
Muesli is often jokingly associated with hippies and tree-huggers, but nothing’s hip about many commercial muesli mixes. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that granola [muesli] is a healthy food”, says personal trainer Adria Ali. “While it’s true that it has fibre, it’s almost always loaded with excess sugar and hidden calories [kilojoules]. A bowl of this ‘natural’ health food can pack over 500 calories [2100 kilojoules] … without the milk”.
Look for mueslis that contain non-genetically modified whole grains and organic ingredients; are high in fibre; and are low in fat, sugar and salt. Moderation is key, too. “Don’t forget to follow the serving size”, Ali says.
Most of the wheat kernel’s nutrients are in the germ. Currently there are no regulations in place to describe the differing amounts of whole grain in different foods, according to the Australian Grains & Legumes Nutritional Council. On a per serve basis, foods labelled “whole grain” can vary in content from 1.4 grams to 75 grams of whole grain!
Many brands also hide how much refined white flour is in their products. Researchers at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) found many wholewheat breads and baked goods were made almost entirely of refined flour.
When shopping, look for organic “wholegrain breads, breakfast cereals, brown rice and wholemeal pasta more often than white or more refined varieties”, recommends the Australian Health Department. With ingredients listed in descending order of their proportion by weight, check the ingredients label—the first ingredient should be a whole grain.
“I’ve had clients who were surprised at the amount of sugar in vitamin waters because they’re called water”, says dietitian Stephanie Langdon, “and sweetened beverages such as iced tea since people keep hearing about the benefits of drinking tea”. She warns that bottled teas often have as much sugar as soft drinks. Additionally, a study found that many commercial, bottled teas contain few to none of the polyphenols that make tea good for you.
Equally bad are juice drinks. “Many of these products are loaded with as much high fructose corn syrup as soda [soft drinks]”, notes Dr Sarah Samaan, a heart and cardiovascular health expert.
Instead, enjoy filtered tap water or homemade brewed teas. When buying bottled beverages, avoid those that contain artificial sweeteners, and check to see how much added sugar they contain. According to the recent “Rethink sugary drink” campaign—a joint venture of the Cancer Council, Diabetes Australia and the Heart Foundation—a 600 ml bottle of regular soft drink contains 16 packs of sugar, with about nine packs in a sports drink.
Choose pure juices or juice your own fruits and vegies at home. Before accepting marketing claims such as “100 per cent natural” or “no artificial sweeteners”, read the label. If you can’t pronounce the ingredients, chances are they may not all be natural.
In a 2012 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers linked red meat with increased risks of cancer and cardiovascular disease. But before buying mock meat products, check the ingredient list. Many contain excess salt, fillers and artificial flavours.
Check the salt and fat content of all fake meat products. Retrain your taste buds to enjoy meat alternatives made with vegetables and whole grains.
There’s a dark side to this antioxidant-rich dessert. “It often contains high amounts of added sugar or dairy”, says nutritionist Laurel DiMasi. It also has 630 kilojoules in just 28 grams, plus saturated fat.
When buying your next bar, look at the ingredients; chocolate liquor or cocoa should appear first, and it should have a labelled minimum cocoa percentage of 70 per cent. Chocoholics be warned: You only need 28 grams of dark chocolate daily to experience its health benefits.
“Something”-free junk food
The category of gluten-free or dairy-free junk foods is a big issue for dietitian Hélène Charlebois. “Many of my clients assume that by buying these types of [baked goods] that they are healthier than their regularly made counterparts”, she says. “But a [kilojoule is a kilojoule]; eating too much of any food is not healthy”.
If you’re watching what you eat, kilojoules and carbohydrates matter more than the latest ingredient-free trend if you have no specific ingredient sensitivities. Work with a nutritionist to identify specific dietary factors that you need to avoid.
Agave nectar may score lower than sugar on the glycemic index, but it’s not perfect. “It’s almost 90 per cent fructose”, says Kevin Kuhn, a nutrition coach and strength and conditioning specialist. “It doesn’t elicit an insulin response, so it has a much higher chance of being stored as fat while contributing to insulin resistance.”
Agave nectar may be healthier than sugar in some ways, but that’s not permission to go overboard. Treat it just like any other added sweetener. “Using a little will not hurt you”, says Kuhn. Choose sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, molasses, fruit juice concentrate or organic coconut palm sugar, which add sweetness and nutritional value.
The next time you need an on-the-go breakfast or gym snack, reaching for your favourite muesli bar may not be ideal. “If you check the label, many are just processed mixtures of sugar, fat and refined carbs”, warns Sharon Palmer, dietitian and author of The Plant-Powered Diet (Hachette Australia, 2012). “The nutritional lineup can be similar to a chocolate bar.”
Avoid muesli bars that contain high amounts of sugar, compound sugary coatings and preservatives. Choose a bar that contains wholefood ingredients and is fortified with vitamins and minerals. If you’re looking for a meal replacement bar, make sure it has at least 5 grams of protein and at least 3 grams of fibre.
Frozen yoghurt has a healthy aura around it, especially compared to traditional high-fat, high-sugar ice cream. However, many of the perceived benefits may not actually be there. For example, the heat processing of frozen yoghurt products and subsequent freezing often kills the beneficial live cultures found in regular yoghurt.
The label should specify whether the frozen yoghurt contains live cultures. Avoid products with excess sweeteners and high amounts of fat.