Don’t eat that! (10 foods and drinks that sound healthy but are not)
Relying on what the food industry suggests is good for you to eat or drink is really not the best strategy. Food manufacturers rarely steer you towards what is best for your health, but more often – towards what is better for their pockets. Unfortunately, even relying on conventional nutritional advice and popular so-called healthy “diets” is often equally disastrous – the irony is that most of that advice is driven and highly influenced by the same food manufacturers, anyway.
So what do you do if you really value your health and care about what you eat? What do you do if you really want your everyday food to help you achieve your health goals and not sabotage them?
Easy – you educate yourself about what really is good and bad. You make an effort to understand the real science behind specific ingredients – and not made up pseudo-facts influenced by political agenda or profit motives.
Does that put an extra onus on you, as a consumer and require extra effort? Absolutely! Is there any other way? Given the recklessness and irresponsibility that food manufacturers are allowed by regulators – probably not in the nearest future. You see, the marketing behind some of these foods and drinks we are going to discuss is brilliant – the labels and claims hit all the right notes with consumers and make them think they are, in fact, consuming something beneficial for their health (or, at least, something that doesn’t harm it). The sad reality is, however, that in many cases – this is very far from truth.
To illustrate, presented below, in no particular order, is a list of 10 common drinks and foods that are marketed as a “healthy alternative”. See for yourself, if this is something you want to put into your body.
1. The irony of Diet Soda
Diet (sometimes also called “zero-calorie”) drinks typically are positioned as such because they contain artificial sweeteners that are believed not to produce glycemic response to the same extent regular sugar does. The majority of such drinks are sweetened by sucralose, aspartame or Acesulfame Potassium (Ace K). The reality is, however, that there is nothing “diet” about soda – ever! If you are on a “diet” – there should be no room in that diet for carbonated artificial drinks – even if they are sweetened with so-called low-glycemic sweeteners. The most perfect diet drink is always water.
The problem with diet soda is twofold – first, although there is typically no sugar (which most dieters by now know is the biggest “villain”), most of these drinks still contain quite a bit of artificial colors and flavors. Take Diet Coke for instance (though it could be any cola-type drink, for that matter) – and look at a list of typical ingredients:
Carbonated water, caramel color, aspartame, phosphoric acid, potassium benzoate, natural flavors, citric acid, caffeine.
(While you are at it, note that, as the website states – as if we didn’t know – “This product includes ingredients sourced from genetically engineered (GE) crops, commonly known as GMOs…” – this, of course, is even more relevant with non-diet drinks where the high-fructose corn syrup used to sweeten them comes from GMO corn)
Let’s go over some of these ingredients one by one. Most cola drinks are colored with what is referred to as “caramel color”, produced by heat treatment of carbohydrates (usually cheap ones, like corn syrup – most of which is GMO) in the presence of certain chemicals. As a result of this process, a potential carcinogen called 4-methylimidazole is formed. And, while, FDA considers potential exposures from “normal” consumption negligible – why risk your health at all – especially given that a lot of people see diet drinks as a free ticket to consume as many of them as they can?
While we are on the subject of artificial colors – cola drinks are not the only culprits, of course. Colors you can find in soda drinks include Yellow 6, Red 40, Blue 1 and other “fun” colors derived from coal tar or petroleum and, potentially, contaminated with solvents and other chemicals (benzidine, 4-aminobiphenyl, aniline, p-cresidine, 1-naphthylamine, etc.). Most of these artificial colors which have been linked to allergies, ADHD and hyperactivity in children and some forms of cancers in lab mice.
Phosphoric acid, found in many sodas (diet or not) is associated with kidney disease and promotes tooth decay.
Ironically, in many cases, the expectation that diet drinks help lose weight by cutting the amount of regular sugar doesn’t materialize. Artificial sweeteners, like aspartame in our list above, can still lead to insulin resistance, disrupt gut flora (which does lead to metabolic changes and potential weight gains), trick your body (based on taste alone) into functioning as if it actually did receive a sugar load (or trigger overeating to compensate for energy it was expecting but never got) and lead to a variety of other side effects. Not only may some of these sweeteners contain chemical contaminants (like chlorine in sucralose), but the by-products of their metabolism can also be toxic.
Potassium benzoate (or its close cousin sodium benzoate found in many processed foods and drinks, as well as health and beauty products and some drugs and supplements) is a preservative and flavoring agent widely used and “generally considered safe” by FDA. Without even commenting on this position, note that (as in the list above) it is often used in products that also contain citric acid – and when these two mix, they form a carcinogenic chemical called benzene.
And, of course, “natural flavors” is a bit of a meaningless claim as pretty much anything derived from something found in nature (as opposed to being synthesized in a lab) falls under that category, including MSG. For instance, “natural” berry flavors often come from castoreum, an extract from beaver perineal (anal) glands.
So the verdict is clear: stay away from diet drinks and stick to water. Generally speaking, addiction to drinks that taste sweet indicates a problem to solve. It’s not enough to reduce consumption of regular sugar – what is important is eliminating the constant cravings for sweet taste (typically achieved by ensuring you substitute the foregone carbs with extra high-quality fats). The dependency on sweet taste usually disappears in a few weeks following the removal of sugary drinks and snacks – so what seemed to taste normal previously, would then taste overly sweet.
2. Vitamin water
Aware of shifting demands for sugary carbonated drinks, Coca Cola marketers came up with an alternative to quest a consumer’s thirst with a product that sounded way better – Vitamin water (other large manufacturers followed suit). After all, everybody knows water is good for you (and, really, the best hydration option there is) and so are vitamins – so putting the two together sounds like a great plan, right?
Well, while vitamin water offers many esoteric fruit flavors (acai blueberry pomegranate, dragonfruit, etc.) and positions its products as an “excellent source” of vitamins, including C, B, antioxidants, electrolytes and other great things, vitamin water is only slightly better than canned soda drinks. A closer attention to the list of ingredients reveals heavy presence of sugar in different forms (cane sugar and clystalline fructose – about 32 grams per 0.5L (or 20fl oz) bottle. And, of course, you read the same statement on Coca Cola’s website: “This product includes ingredients sourced from genetically engineered (GE) crops, commonly known as GMO” – so, draw your own conclusions. Interestingly, the actual amount of vitamins and minerals – which seems to be the primary purpose of the product – is not fully disclosed on the nutrition label. It is only shown as a percentage (of what?). One can only assume that these are percentages of Recommended Daily Averages (RDA) which, as we already know, are unreasonably low for a lot of vitamins.
Included in the list of ingredients we also find the same elusive “natural flavors”, modified food starch and, if you are getting vitamin water as a fountain drink – the same potassium benzoate we discussed above, as well as calcium disodium EDTA, and artificial colors, like red 40 and blue 1.
So stay away from vitamin water and similar drinks – it’s neither water nor a good source of vitamins.
3. Powerade, Gatorade and other “sports drinks”
Vitamin water is not the only product that promises electrolytes and vitamins – a similar product, produced by Coca Cola – Powerade (just as Gatorade, produced by PepsiCo), promises to keep you hydrated and replenish lost minerals and vitamins. It is positioned as THE drink of choice for athletes (and heavily marketed as such), but also suggested as “re-hydration” drink (including to kids in schools), but what does this mix really contain?
Let’s take a closer look: high fructose corn syrup, modified food starch (read: MSG), calcium disodium EDTA, artificial colors, and sucrose acetate isobutyrate. Also, until about 2014 both Gatorade and Powerade included brominated vegetable oil. With sugar content the same as in Coke and sodium levels only about 6-7% of RDA, if you strip away the glorified labels and the image, under the surface these drinks remain what they really are – sugary artificially colored (with the same Red 40 and Blue 1, linked to many medical conditions) beverages.
A bigger fundamental question, however, remains: do you really need re-hydration and electrolyte replenishment or is this a made-up problem with the solution being forced onto you? Turns out – in most cases (excluding severe diarrhea and vomiting in small children following various stomach bugs – in which case giving them this chemical cocktail would not be advisable anyway) you don’t – even if you are some elite endurance athlete.
Here is why. Electrolytes are typically lost with bodily liquids – so it is believed that you need to replenish electrolytes after profuse sweating. After all, electrolytes are essential for our nervous systems to function and their depletion may lead to a variety of side effects, such as nausea, headaches, weakness, tremors and – in very extreme cases of severe dehydration – coma and death. But the primary electrolyte lost with sweat is sodium. Potassium is lost in far lesser amounts than sodium and magnesium – even in lesser amounts than Potassium. So, these two need to be replenished far less often, too. In the end, salty foods and just salt mixed in with water would do the trick in 99% of cases. If you eat a whole food diet, full of fresh vegetables and some fruit and periodically drink mineral water (not just sparkling, but actually mineral, with mineral content displayed on the label), your electrolytes should be just fine. In most cases, rehydration with pure water (or, better yet, with water with a bit of salt mixed in) is sufficient.
4. Fruit juices
All right, carbonated sugary soda pop drinks are bad – but “natural” fruit juices must be good for you, right? Aren’t we supposed to consume 7-8 servings of vegetables or fruits each day and aren’t juices (as they often claim on their labels) the best way to quickly consume that suggested amount?
Well, not quite. First, you can never lump fruits and vegetables into the same category – as natural as they both sound, most fruits (especially supermarket varieties, bred for their sweetness) contain prohibitive amounts of sugars (albeit natural – it doesn’t matter, as most of them are metabolized in the same way) to be consumed in large quantities. So consumers who are trying to be more health-conscious and substituting cans of sugary soda for “natural” juices may be in for a surprise if they actually read the labels. While juice from a fruit or a vegetable may sound like a great idea and looks like a healthy alternative for hydration, once again, closer look at the list of ingredients in vast majority of packaged juices reveals a different picture.
In order to package juices and ensure long shelf life, many fruit juices are pasteurized – i.e. briefly subjected to high temperatures that kill pathogenic bacteria before the final product is packaged in a tightly sealed Tetra Pak box (or a plastic bottle). Pasteurization, however, also deactivates most vitamins, removing all the health benefits people associate with fruits. Any and all vitamins that these colorful boxes are boasting are synthetic vitamins and minerals that are added later in the process of “fortification”. Moreover, half of those added vitamins (like A or D) are ineffective (so the number on the label is mostly meaningless) because they are not water-, but fat-soluble and, when consumed without accompanying fat, are not absorbed by your body.
What is left behind with these juices is sugar. Usually – lots of it. Even if none is actually added (and this is not guaranteed, so make sure you read the labels), fruit juice contains plenty of its own (typically in the form of fructose) – a cup of orange juice contains as much sugar as a can of regular Coke – about 23 grams per cup. Certain sweeter fruits (pineapple, pear) provide even higher amounts.
Even with freshly-squeezed juice that you might extract from fresh fruits yourself, the benefits are questionable. Not only fruit juices are generally a fructose (sugar) overload, but they also mostly do not provide the benefits advertised and associated with juicing.
The verdict? Pick your drinks wisely. Occasional fruit juice won’t kill you (even then – always read the labels and make sure you pick the freshest variety without anything extra added in), but they shouldn’t be a staple of your hydration protocols. Once again, water really is the best drink out there.
5. Low-fat, fat-free and low saturated fat foods
Let’s leave the drinks aside and move on to foods – and start with a generic category of “fat-free goodness”. For those who keep thinking that eating fat will make you fat – low-fat foods make perfect sense. While the likes of American Heart Association (AHA) continue to recommend mostly removing animal fats from your diet (while, ironically, having no problem recommending useless plant oils), low-fat foods remain a staple of “traditional” restrictive diets. It is baffling how extra carbohydrates – the main reason why people gain weight and experience health problems – are never discussed in the same context.
Of course, in some cases low-fat actually means “low in trans-fat” or “low in cooking oil used multiple times” (as in deep-fried food) – we are all for that. But when low-fat means devoid of any fat – and represents a lifestyle that is allegedly supposed to protect you from heart disease and obesity – strike it off your list of healthy foods.
The problem with low-fat foods is that converting foods that normally contain natural fats into a “low-fat” or “no-fat” variety requires some relatively substantial processing. Such processing often involves high temperatures and chemical baths – which often destroys nutritional qualities of a product involved (that’s why most processed foods lack nutritional qualities and are just “fillers”). Moreover, a very large number of volatile taste molecules are fat-soluble. As well, your perception of a product’s “texture” and “richness” depends on the fat content. So, normally, a complete removal of fat will leave a product dull, bland and tasting unpleasant. To compensate for that, food processors add other ingredients to mask the absence of fat. Typically, these include emulsifiers and gums (carrageenan, locust bean, guar, xantham, etc.) to maintain body, silkiness or texture as well as sugars and artificial flavors to fool your palate into liking the product (for most people conditioned by over-sweetened snacks and drinks, sweeter means tastier). That’s some great foolery – our brains, pre-wired to be addicted to sweet taste get too happy about the sugar content and don’t notice the absence of anything else. Ironically, although sugar is the primary cause of obesity (and resulting metabolic problems, including cardiovascular disease), its overabundance was never considered a problem.
Low-fat varieties of pre-cooked foods are usually cooked with vegetable oils (lower in saturated fat, but full of their own problems).
The reality is, there is almost never a case for a low-fat version of a full-fat product (provided, of course, that we are talking about whole foods and fat that is naturally found in it). The fear of fat comes from an outdated (and originally faulty) notion that dietary fat causes cardiovascular disease (which is wrong) and obesity (also, generally, wrong). The same can be said about replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated heavily processed oils (which, due to their tendency to remain liquid at room temperature often have to be hydrogenated – or solidified – using various chemical processes). In most cases, you are better off sticking to the original full-fat version.
Interestingly, in most cases – you can’t really eat too much fat – it’s too satiating to overeat (especially saturated fat). You can, however, absolutely overeat sugar. And, interestingly, when you eat sugar, you can absolutely overeat everything else (including fat). So a food that is both sweet and fatty (or, more properly defined – has a combination of too much carbs and a lot of lipids or even proteins – which is often the case with most processed products) has a tendency to be overconsumed.
Scared of extra weight or cardiovascular complications? Pick your fats wisely and reduce your carbs (and, of course, be reasonable and don’t just wolf down pounds of lard for no reason – not that you would be able to) – and you should have nothing to worry about. For a primer on why fat is extremely important and why you can’t be healthy without it refer to one of the prior articles.
6. Veggie sticks, vegetable chips or vegetable straws
Here is a revelation: putting a healthy-sounding component into the name doesn’t necessarily make the product itself healthy. Vegetable chips or veggie sticks or whatever creative names marketers assign to these products are really no better than your regular supermarket-variety potato chips. In order to convince you that this is a healthier product, advertisers mention that veggie straws are “gluten-free”, “all-natural” or that they are a “sensible way to get your vegetables” (really?!), but the fact is – the only way you should eat most vegetables is fresh and raw (excluding those, of course, that need some thermal processing to make them edible – such as beans and potatoes, for instance).
Make no mistake – the only real association of such products with vegetables ends with the fact that added into the batter that is later deep-fried (just as most “non-baked” potato chips) is some sort of puree, dehydrated powder or low-concentration juice – which might have originally started out as a vegetable, but have undergone so many serious transformations that they can hardly be called one (and have no nutritional benefits).
Veggie chips might, in theory, have lower starch content than potato chips, which generally means they might carry a lower carb load (and even this is not guaranteed, as, to ensure the “crunch” many of these vegetable chips have added starches and sugars), but preparation methods remain the same – deep-frying in pro-inflammatory poly-unsaturated oils. Some manufacturers may fortify the final product with vitamins and minerals to make it look healthy, but even if what is being put back in fully equals what is lost, given that vitamins and minerals often do not work in isolation and require many co-factors present in fresh vegetables and fruits – you are not getting a good bargain.
Don’t let the presence of boastful claims (sea salt, 0% trans fat, “natural”, or “gluten free” – how is that relevant?) fool you. A vegetable stick is really just a puffed up, extruded mixture of potato flour, potato starch, canola/safflower oil, tomato paste (or spinach powder, or something of that nature), sunflower oil and corn starch with salt, sugar, etc.
Yes, there is only 1g of sugar per 28 grams of the product (which, if you think about this, is not too shabby) – but with total 15g of carbohydrates, of which 1g is sugar and 1g is fiber, the rest (almost a half of the final product by weight) is just attributed to starch – which does, ultimately, get metabolized by your body as glucose.
Still think veggie sticks are healthy snack alternatives? Think again…
7. Conventional yogurt
Most people think yogurt is a great healthy food – after all, most commercials from TV screens tell us how they are full of l.casei defensis, Bifidobacterium and other goodies that are supposed to keep your stomachs happy.
Generally speaking, fermented foods may be beneficial for our digestive systems (and, if your gut bacteria is healthy – this means better immune system, better metabolism , better mood and many other things). However, most store-bought yogurts are a case of taking something good and turning it into something bad. To illustrate, look at a typical nutrition label for Danone Activia: it starts out as skim (processed) milk and skim milk powder, boasts 11 grams of sugar per 100 grams of product, modified corn starch and all sorts of “natural flavors” and “natural colors” (you already know that the word “natural” has no meaning and definitely does not connote any health benefits), rather than actual fruit. Some yogurts do include fruit purees (processed), some include pectin, carrageenan and other gums and the cheaper varieties include high-fructose corn syrup, artificial colors and flavors
But perhaps all of that can be ignored because of probiotics? It turns out – such reference to probiotics with huge numbers thrown around, is largely worthless. The vast majority of commercially available yogurts just do not contain sufficient amount of pro-biotics (beneficial bacteria). Also, keep in mind that even if they did – mindlessly consuming boatloads of fermented foods in an attempt to improve your health may not always be the best approach. As with many foods – a lot depends on personal tolerance and current bacterial flora (this can be tested, by the way, through services like Viome, etc.). Sometimes, overconsuming fermented foods may lead to the results opposite to what you would expect. In some individuals with gut flora that is already unhealthy / imbalanced, overload with certain kinds of pre-biotics may increase histamine production and lead to histamine intolerance with symptoms mimicking allergic reaction, inflammation, asthma, arrhythmia, eczema and more. L.casei, L, reuteri and L.bulgaricus, found in most yogurts, are histamine-producing bacteria. On the contrary, Bifidobacterium, for instance, has histamine-degrading properties.
Ironically, foods containing high amounts of simple sugars (remember the reference to most flavored yogurts above?) promote the proliferation of “bad” gut bacteria and, generally, unhealthy gut flora – consuming fermented foods under those conditions (or wrong kinds of pre-biotics, i.e. food for your gut bacteria) is like pouring fuel into the fire.
Generally, the only ingredient you should see in yogurt is, well, yogurt! Fermented with beneficial bacterial cultures, unsweetened and unflavoured. For picky eaters – you can flavor it yourself with the ingredients of your choice (our advice – don’t!). And, to be fair, you can get (often labeled with a meaningless word “natural” or “unflavored”) full fat yogurt in many stores. But the majority of packaged yogurts with fruity flavors represent nothing more than a sugary snack (bad!).
What is the verdict? In most cases, yogurt is not a healthy alternative. You may derive certain benefits from unsweetened and otherwise unmodified naturally fermented yogurts without any additives, but this would also depend on your gut flora (the best way to tell is either to test your gut flora or closely monitor your symptoms after consuming fermented foods).
8. Frozen yogurt
As a subset of the whole yogurt craze – let’s talk about frozen yogurt. While it sounds better than “ice cream”, which connotes nothing more than a sweet indulgent dessert (in most cases full of other junk) – it really isn’t much different and is merely an attempt to capitalize on the whole “yogurt-as-a-health-food” misconception. Frozen yogurt (as opposed to frozen desserts made from real cream) is lower in fat (not necessarily a good thing), but, as we learned earlier, having removed the texture and flavor-impacting fat, manufacturers typically have to add something in to substitute – and that “something” is usually more sugar and other fillers – and quite a few other ingredients.
Marketing around different frozen yogurts is strikingly similar – it utilizes words like “healthy’, made with “real” (sometimes even “homemade”) ingredients, rich in calcium, and a bunch of other hand-picked words that have no real meaning. What they fail to disclose (or make a lot of effort to hide from plain view) is that what may at some point start as yogurt (and for most of them it’s questionable that they actually start out as a real yogurt, as opposed to a combination of ingredients similar to those that go into yogurt – most often, just milk) – by the time they become the final product, the transformation is too drastic for any real association. Added ingredients, such as guar gum, maltodextrin, sodium citrate, cellulose gum, disodium phosphate and propylene glycol monoesters (to name just a few) don’t-sound-like-food ingredients. Some frozen yogurts contained carrageenan, a thickening agent derived from red seaweed that has been associated with adverse health effects in some studies.
To illustrate the point, let’s look at a sample list of ingredients for Yogurty’s:
Most of the flavors contain between 20 and 31 grams of sugar per 100g of the product and only about 8% of recommended daily calcium intake (of course, you should know that there are far better sources of calcium). That’s before using any toppings (which can add at least as much sugar – plus other artificial ingredients).
Aside from the fact that most ice-cream and dairy-based frozen desserts start out with conventional (non-organic) milk and milk powder (meaning, it can contain traces of antibiotics and hormones given to cows and subjected to high-temperature processing as a part of dehydration to powder or ultra-pasteurization), even bigger problem is the presence of ingredients that are not food – preservatives, coloring and flavoring agents. Here is a sample list from Ben & Jerry’s “Half Baked” frozen yogurt (note the bolded ingredients):
SKIM MILK, WATER, LIQUID SUGAR (SUGAR, WATER), CORN SYRUP SOLIDS, SUGAR, WHEAT FLOUR, BROWN SUGAR, CREAM, COCOA (PROCESSED WITH ALKALI), EGG YOLKS, BUTTER (CREAM, SALT), NONFAT YOGURT POWDER (CULTURED NONFAT MILK), COCOA POWDER, EGGS, EXPELLER PRESSED SOYBEAN OIL, CHOCOLATE LIQUOR, VANILLA EXTRACT, EGG WHITES, LOCUST BEAN GUM, SALT, GUAR GUM, YOGURT CULTURES, NATURAL FLAVORS, COCOA BUTTER, SOY LECITHIN, MALTED BARLEY FLOUR, SODIUM BICARBONATE.
Depending on the brand, ingredients lurking in these tasty treats may include: hydrogenated soybean, cottonseed and palm oils, corn starch and corn flour, all sorts of gums (guar, carrageenan, locust bean, xantham, and all sorts of sugars, under different names (maltodextrin, dextrose, maltose, maltitol, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, mono- and diglycerides, etc.).
Mentioning “yogurt cultures” included in this horrible mix is a ridiculously cheap shot to make it look healthy. FYI, even assuming you started out with the right amount of the right cultures (see “yogurt” above) most bacterial cultures do not survive the harsh processing and extreme temperatures they are subjected to – so if you are counting on getting a healthy dose of probiotics – look elsewhere.
9. Multi-grain products
The truth is – it doesn’t matter if your baked goods are multi- or single-grain. As long as they are grain-based, they have a relatively similar – and quite unimpressive – nutritional profile.
Surprised? You may be even more surprised to hear that the darling of many so-called “diets” – whole grain, which promises more fiber and slower glycemic response – is also quite unimpressive and often even more detrimental to your health.
The very first thing to keep in mind is this: any grain-based product cannot, by definition, be a health food. Grains are cheap source of easy and fast calories and a good way to get energy fast in times of famine – but all that comes at a price. Despite certain (ridiculous) claims about protein content of some grain-based products (“high-protein” cereal still remains primarily a high-carb food) these foods are NEVER a primary source of protein. One or two extra grams of protein per serving may be enough of a technicality to classify them as “high-protein”, but, even assuming you need higher level of protein than what you are getting now, that level will never be as high as consuming actual protein-rich foods.
Grain-based products (even “high-protein” ones) still suffer from many problems – despite what the industry tells you, their nutritional profile is unremarkable (in all cases, you can get equal or higher amounts of vitamins and minerals that grain are said to contain from other vegetables). Assuming there were nutrients to begin with (and that is a big assumption given the nutrient depleted soils that grow monocrops in industrial farming) and assuming some of these nutrients still remain in grains after processing – or added as a result of “fortification” (because the said processing strips off the original ones) – these nutrients are difficult for your body to absorb because grains (especially whole grains – also widely advertised as a healthy alternative) contain lectins and phytates – both of which interfere with nutrient absorption (and, in fact, may even lead to a situation where your bones are stripped of minerals – leading to tooth decay, osteoporosis and other negative effects).
Another downside of consuming (non-organic) grains is a potential presence of glyphosate residue. Glyphosate – which is sprayed over crops before harvesting as a standard agricultural practice in North America – is a potent antibiotic. Meaning that if you ingest it, it wreaks havoc on your (beneficial) gut bacteria – and we know this is not good at all, and can lead to many problems.
While avoiding gluten is half of the battle – it doesn’t mean gluten-free grains, such as quinoa or amaranth is a good long-term solution. While seemingly better than wheat or rye (quinoa, for instance, contains a complete set of essential amino acids, albeit in small amount), these grains are only a slightly better alternative. Both quinoa and amaranth contain saponins – compounds that, similar to gluten, may interfere with digestion and damage enterocytes – the cells that line your intestines, causing a leaky gut syndrome and a whole host of problems that come with it and protease inhibitors – enzymes that interfere with digestion of proteins.
Even when you look at the most neutral varieties of grains – such as everyone’s darling, oats – they remain, at most, a cheap source of energy and rarely anything more. Oats do contain some protein (as most grains do – in very small amounts and typically as an incomplete source), but, as any other grain, they remain mostly a source of carbohydrates. So, while an occasional bowl of cooked rolled oats (not extruded and overly processed sugary cereal) is not the end of the world, think of it more as of indulgence and a way to satisfy carb cravings, rather than nutritional health food.
In the end, only food that delivers a good dose of macro and micronutrients, is easily absorbed and does not overload you with damaging compounds can be classified as “healthy”. Grains in general – including whole grains – fail to deliver on that front.
10. Store-bought salad dressing
Most people know salads are good for you – well, at least salads that are made of normal vegetables, not starchy and oily combinations like potato salad with conventional mayonnaise. Fresh vegetables are a source of many vitamins and minerals and can, basically, be consumed in any amounts. At the same time, a lot of people find the taste of fresh salads bland and boring – and try spicing it up with some sort of a dressing. Unfortunately, most of the time it means pouring some mysterious liquid from a store-bought bottle over it.
Trying to appease those misinformed people who declared war on dietary fat, food manufacturers often offer fat-free salad dressings. Generally speaking, you need to remember that a lot of important vitamins are fat-soluble, so if you are eating a fresh vegetable salad without some sort of fat – most of those will go to waste. However, “fat-free”, when it comes to many store-bought varieties, is not necessarily a bad thing, because “fat-full” with those brands typically means full of canola oil. Canola oil is favored a lot by food manufacturing industry because it is widely available, relatively cheap and refined to the extent of not really having any taste. The problem is that it is also produced from genetically modified crops in 90% of cases, may contain residues of industrial chemical solvents, is extremely over-processed and, thus, devoid of any polyphenols often present in unrefined oils. The better varieties of fat (those that are not subject to heavy industrial processing and are not polyunsaturated and, thus, more prone to oxidation and promoting free radical damage) are hard to put in a liquid dressing. The two notable varieties are: unrefined extra virgin cold-pressed olive oil and MCT oil. Olive oil is one of the few plant-based oils that contains largely mono-unsaturated fats and, thus, is much less prone to oxidation and degradation (unrefined extra virgin oil is preferred because of the presence of polyphenols and other beneficial compounds). MCT oil, typically derived from coconut or palm oils, is liquid at room temperature and contains only medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) (those with 6, 8 or 10 carbon molecules in a lipid chain). Those are fully saturated (and, thus, less prone to heat degradation), neutral in taste and, most importantly – contain beneficial compounds (such as lauric acid, known for its anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and other properties).
Store-bought salad dressing varieties, on the other hand, may contain an inordinate amount of “fillers” and taste enhancers that are absolutely unnecessary. Here is a list of ingredients and a nutrition lable for Kraft Balsamic vinaigrette dressing – again, note the bolded ones:
INGREDIENTS: WATER, BALSAMIC VINEGAR (WINE VINEGAR, GRAPE JUICE, WATER), SOYBEAN OIL, SUGAR, CANOLA OIL, SALT, CONTAINS LESS THAN 2% OF DRIED GARLIC, DIJON MUSTARD (DISTILLED VINEGAR, MUSTARD SEED, WATER, SALT, WHITE WINE, TARTARIC ACID, CITRIC ACID, SPICE), SPICE, XANTHAN GUM, DRIED PARSLEY, OLEORESIN PAPRIKA, POTASSIUM SORBATE AND CALCIUM DISODIUM EDTA (TO PROTECT FLAVOR).
(and you thought it was real balsamic vinegar? Ha! Wine vinegar + grape juice will do…)
Or take a look at Kraft Three Cheese Ranch:
SOYBEAN OIL, WATER, WHEY, VINEGAR, SUGAR, PARMESAN CHEESE (PART-SKIM MILK, CHEESE CULTURE, SALT, ENZYMES), SALT, CONTAINS LESS THAN 2% OF MODIFIED FOOD STARCH, CHEDDAR CHEESE (MILK, CHEESE CULTURE, SALT AND ENZYMES), ROMANO CHEESE MADE FROM COW’S MILK (PART-SKIM MILK, CHEESE CULTURE, SALT, ENZYMES), PHOSPHORIC ACID, XANTHAN GUM, POLYSORBATE 60, BUTTERMILK, DRIED GARLIC, SPICE, SODIUM PHOSPHATE, NATURAL FLAVOR, LACTIC ACID, YELLOW 5, YELLOW 6, ANNATTO (COLOR), SORBIC ACID AND CALCIUM DISODIUM EDTA (TO PROTECT FLAVOR)
As you can see, present in ample amounts are such ingredients as: sugar (in many forms), gums, artificial flavors, inflammatory oils, preservatives, colors and other junk. This, of course, is not the case with one particular producer – but with most of them. Exceptions are rare and have to be specifically sought out.
So say no to store-bought salad dressings and whip up your own (it’s really not hard at all). A good salad dressing needs to contain some sort of fat (to absorb all these vitamins from vegetables) – extra virgin olive, MCT, avocado or macadamia nut oils are all good alternatives. In restaurants, the safest bet is to go after house-made (not store-bought) balsamic dressing (olive oil and balsamic vinegar), or just olive oil with a few spices. While balsamic vinegar has very high sugar content, when used in small amounts, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Read olive oil labels and do other research and check ratings for any olive oil you decide to use – the nature of this industry is such that, sometimes, a mix of cheaper oils can have some olive oil added in and still be legally called “olive oil”).
Was this a complete list of healthy-sounding foods that are unhealthy? Of course not! Three are many, many more instances. Those described above may not even be the worst offenders. This list merely draws your attention to how the industry operates and highlights the necessity to do your own research and always – always – read the labels and understand every single ingredient that you see.