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7 Deceptively “Healthy” Foods That Actually… Aren’t

By Summer Rylander
November 3, 2021

Who among us hasn’t grabbed a handful of granola on our way out the door, ordered a green juice as a mid-afternoon pick-me-up because it felt more wholesome than an iced coffee, or chewed our way through a protein bar in lieu of an actual lunch? These seem like reasonably healthy alternatives, after all.

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While it’s true that the concept of what “healthy” means can vary widely — and everyone’s body is different — there are a few guidelines that tend to ring universally true when it comes to nutrition. Limiting refined sugar, refined grains, and highly processed foods is a pretty good start. Bearing this criteria in mind, we’re myth-busting a few allegedly “healthy” foods that actually aren’t as great for us as we’ve been led to believe.

Cold-pressed juices

There are several ways to extract juice from fruits and vegetables, but cold-pressing involves the use of a hydraulic press to crush produce basically into oblivion. While other methods of juicing — masticating, centrifugal, blitzing in a high-powered blender — generate heat through the spinning and whirring of blades or gears, cold-pressing remains, well, cold. 

Those in favor of this extraction technique claim that avoiding exposure to warmer temperatures during production allows the juice to retain more nutrients. But the less-sexy truth is that by stripping away the flesh of the fruit or veg, you’re actually removing the ultra-valuable insoluble fiber. This type of fiber is important for digestion, and it helps to manage cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Fiber also helps us feel satiated, thus regulating our natural appetites.

Juice may taste great and seem like an efficient way to consume more produce, but you’re taking in far more sugar — and less of the actual good stuff — than if you simply ate an apple with lunch and crunched on some carrots as an afternoon snack. 

Protein and energy bars

Whether you’re looking for a quick hit of energy, a post-workout protein boost, or a full-on meal replacement, there’s a bar on the market to tick every box. We can’t deny the grab-and-go, no-mess convenience of a protein bar, but they’re definitely not the nutritional solution that marketing departments would like us to believe.

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Reading the label on packaged foods is always a good idea, but especially when it comes to potentially choosing a protein bar over a less-processed food option. Many bars contain a surprising amount of sugars, sugar alcohols, or artificial sweeteners in order to make them taste passably pleasant. If you factor in artificial flavorings and highly-processed grains, it’s rarely in your body’s best interest to reach for a protein or energy bar. 

A boiled egg, a piece of fruit, or a handful of lightly salted almonds (or all three!) are equally as portable — and more nutritionally sound.

Flavored yogurts

Walk into any grocery store and you’re sure to see row after row of yogurts in fun, creative flavors like “Snickerdoodle” and “Key Lime Pie.” This one certainly is tricky, because yogurt is generally a healthy choice — probiotics, anyone? — but you have to read the label.

Flavored yogurts, including the fruit-on-the-bottom variety, are often loaded with added sugar to maximize taste and lend a jammy texture to bits of fruit (which is already sweet!). Modified cornstarch is also a common additive to enhance consistency and stabilize the mixture, and while not explicitly harmful, is highly processed and adds no nutritional value.

The better alternative is to buy plain, unsweetened yogurt and top it with fresh berries or sliced fruit of your choice.

Trail mix

Let’s be real: trail mix is delightful. Whether you pick out one piece at a time or toss back a handful, its variety hits all the crunchy-chewy textures and sweet-savory flavors that so many of us crave when it’s time for a snack. 

Not all varieties of trail mix are distinctly unhealthy, but if your favorite mix is full of chocolate candy pieces, honey-glazed nuts, cereal bits, pretzels, granola clusters, or any combination thereof — you’re probably ingesting more refined grains, sugars, and sodium than you bargained for. 

Fortunately, it’s easy to make your own trail mix that is actually good for you and still fun to eat. 

Nut butters

It’s hardly a secret that peanut butters from the big-name brands are not a nutritional haven. The use of palm oil (an ingredient known to be environmentally destructive and labor exploitative), hydrogenated vegetable oils, and the addition of sugar (sometimes in more than one form) are not only unhealthy — they’re simply unnecessary.

Read next: We Found the Healthiest, Best-Tasting Organic Peanut Butters

Here’s the good news: nuts are already rich in natural, good-for-you oils. A minimally-processed nut butter — ideally adding nothing more than perhaps a pinch of sea salt — will retain the vitamins, antioxidants, fiber, and protein that make nuts such a valuable part of our diet. 

So read the label before buying (or have a go at making your favorite nut butter at home).

Nut milks

Yep, just like nut butter, grocery store nut milks are rife with unnecessary sweeteners. If you’re adding your alternative milk of choice to coffee or tea, splashing it into porridge, and incorporating it into recipes that call for milk, then those extra sugars are adding up. 

But it isn’t just sugar you should be on the lookout for with nut milks. Some brands use additives to thicken and stabilize the consistency, and you might even see added vegetable oils for emulsification. Unnecessary and unappealing, if you ask us.

So, you guessed it: Inspect the ingredient list — or try a DIY nut milk.

Vegetable chips

There’s been a strong uptick in vegetable and other potato chip replacements (maybe you’ve also noticed quinoa, chickpea, or lentil chips springing up lately?), and the veggie chip market is expected to only further increase in growth.

Ignoring the fact that technically — technically — regular potato chips are, in fact, also vegetable chips, taking a closer look at these salty, crunchy alternatives reveals that they aren’t doing us any healthy favors.

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They may be made with slices of carrot, beet, zucchini, parsnip, or even kale or spinach, but vegetable chips are largely still fried in oil and laden with sodium. Mimicking the crunch and savory satisfaction of your standard potato chip is the goal, of course, so the whole “baked, not fried!” schtick would lose its appeal pretty quickly. But by the time the vegetables have been processed into something chip-like, they’ve lost a great deal of their nutritional value — and are hardly a replacement for actual fresh vegetables.

That said, there are plenty of delicious ways to turn your favorite veggies into an extra-crispy treat — no deep-fryer necessary.

Summer Rylander is a freelance food and travel writer based in Germany. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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