Don’t Fall for These 8 Health Food Frauds

Uncover the truth about some popular “health” foods and learn how to separate fiction from fact.

Food and drink manufacturers are brilliant at making products seem healthier than they are by using hot-button words like “whole-grain,” “all-natural” and “plant-based.” Some products are so well-disguised that they may unknowingly be something akin to junk food and upend your diet by proxy. It’s time to unmask these health-food frauds and separate the hard truth from the hype.

Meatless Burgers

Meatless burgers have become mainstream, popping up in fast-food restaurants across the nation.

The Promise

With the recent focus on plant-based eating, meatless burgers have suddenly become mainstream and are even popping up in fast-food restaurants as healthier alternatives to their regular fare. As opposed to the crumbly, bland veggie burgers of yore, these new patties promise a taste and texture experience that won’t leave you pondering, “Where’s the beef.” In fact, some burgers actually (ick) bleed for realism. Since there’s plenty of evidence that eating more plants and fewer animals is better for us and for the planet, these new-gen burger swaps seemingly deserve a halo.

Reality Bites

The true value of eating a plant-based diet comes from eating whole, minimally processed foods — which these burgers are decidedly not. While they are higher in protein and taste more like the real thing than previous iterations, these burgers are in actuality an ultra-processed product and contain dozens of mysterious ingredients such as methylcellulose and cultured dextrose. They also deliver the same number of calories and saturated fat grams as a regular beef patty and are typically higher in sodium. Plus, all the processing necessary to create this Frankenfood negates much of the attempt to reduce their environmental footprint.

Healthy Spin

If you’re trying to be more plant-forward but are suddenly gripped by a burger craving, then go ahead and have that bleeding veggie burger because everything in moderation, right? Just make sure to read ingredient lists if you’re trying to avoid items like soy or gluten, or better yet, create your own patties using whole-food items to work more plants into your meal planning.

Dark Chocolate

The Promise

Of all the items on this list, dark chocolate has some of the most robust research backing its health claims. Cocoa, the star ingredient in all chocolate, offers a payload of flavonoids and antioxidants, which have been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes, as well as a spectrum of vitamins and minerals, including iron, magnesium, copper and selenium. Dark chocolate is supposed to contain more cocoa than milk or white chocolate and is branded as a healthier way to crush your cravings.

Reality Bites

Currently, there are no official rules or regulations surrounding the use of the term “dark chocolate” on product packaging, and it has largely become a marketing ploy rather than a meaningful benefit. Plus, chocolate of any kind is a high-calorie food with about 160 calories per ounce, and it contains plenty of sugar and fat that can override your nutrition efforts.

Healthy Spin

You should always look to the produce aisle — not the candy section — for your daily dose of antioxidants, and if you want a treat that has actual nutritional benefits, buy bars with a cocoa percentage of 60 percent or greater printed on the packaging. And of course, limit your intake: A large review study published in Heart found that you only need about 3 ounces of dark chocolate per week to reap the health perks.

Honey

Nearly all the calories in honey come from glucose and fructose.

The Promise

Honey receives a lot of buzz as a body-friendly alternative to refined sugar that contains nutritious antioxidants and can act as an anti-bacterial agent. So granola and energy bars sweetened with honey are good for you, right?

Reality Bites

Raw unpasteurized and dark honey varieties like buckwheat do contain some antioxidants and trace amounts of minerals like iron, manganese and potassium, and there is some evidence that it may help suppress coughs in children. However, nearly all the calories in honey hail from glucose and fructose, and a report in The Journal of Nutrition found that the regular consumption of honey can bring about the same negative impact on health measures as sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, including elevated blood triglycerides, high blood pressure, increased bodyweight, blood sugar control issues and increased inflammation.

Healthy Spin

There is no such thing as “healthier” honey, regardless of packaging claims. Limit your intake to no more than 1 tablespoon per day because, believe it or not, honey contains more calories per tablespoon than regular sugar — 64 versus 46.5!

Himalayan Pink Salt

Himalayan pink salt is 98% sodium chloride, and extended or liberal use could cause elevated blood pressure and bloating.

The Promise

Mined from the Himalayan Mountains, this trendy salt gleans its distinctive pink hue from naturally occurring iron oxide. Enthusiasts claim it contains less sodium and a larger arsenal of nutrients than regular table salt, and they swear it delivers more flavor to your meals.

Reality Bites

Take these claims with a grain of salt (haha) because Himalayan pink salt is still 98 percent sodium chloride (e.g., salt), and liberal use could cause elevated blood pressure and bloating. It does contain minerals such as iron, magnesium and calcium, but these are found in very trace amounts — and for a lot more money — and have little, if any, impact on your daily intake.

Healthy Spin

Whether it’s kosher, sea or table, salt is salt. Use it as needed to season food, but don’t go overboard. Use herb-based spice alternatives and fresh herb blends in place of salt whenever possible for a larger flavor spectrum without the blood-boiling side effects.

Always read the labels because like the saying goes, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Fat-Free/Low-Fat Salad Dressing

Opting to make your own salad dressing could save you from high sodium and sugar content.

The Promise

Salads are a summer staple, especially when farm-fresh veggies are widely available. Because a high-calorie dressing is often the downfall of a healthy salad, manufacturers have created “light,” “low-fat” and “fat-free” alternatives to appeal to the calorie-conscious. These dressings promise dieting success and a smart way to slash fat and calories from your salad bowl without sacrificing taste.

Reality Bites

Sure, salad dressings are primarily fat-based, but this is not necessarily a bad thing: You need dietary fat in order to absorb vital fat-soluble vitamins and minerals such as are found in abundance in your big, colorful salad. A fat-free dressing, therefore, means reduced assimilation of those body-beneficial ingredients. In addition, dressings like these are highly processed and contain things like emulsifiers, thickeners, preservatives, salt and added sugar — including fructose corn syrup — none of which are beneficial.

Healthy Spin

Make your own dressing using a simple mixture of healthy oil, vinegar and aromatics like garlic, mustard and herbs. If you go the store-bought route, choose a full-fat product made with heart-friendly avocado or extra-virgin olive oil, less than 200 milligrams of sodium and no more than 2 grams of sugar per serving. And as with all high-fat foods, mind your portions: Stick to a measured 2 tablespoons per salad.

Salad dressings that are “made with olive oil” often contain other undesirable oils such as soybean and corn, so read labels carefully.

Veggie-Infused Pasta

How many veggies are really in veggie-infused pasts?

The Promise

The idea sounds solid: Reduce your refined flour intake and boost your daily veggie consumption by combining pasta and vegetables into one easy-to-make food. These food-fused products are also reputed to contain more nutrients and antioxidants than standard spaghetti.

Reality Bites

Sorry, but any “infused” noodle product is basically just regular pasta: During processing, a scant amount of veggie dust is added to nutritionally void white durum semolina or another refined flour to add some oomph (and marketing opportunity) to a standard pasta, and the nutritional difference is typically so meager that it has little impact on your health.

Healthy Spin

Instead, choose a 100 percent whole-grain or whole-wheat pasta, or opt for noodles whose base ingredient is an actual whole food such as beans or chickpeas. This guarantees a healthy shot of fiber and protein as well as naturally occurring vitamins and minerals.

Kombucha

The Promise

Sales of this ancient brew have skyrocketed in recent years, and kombucha has successfully transcended hipster status to become mainstream (unlike suspenders and pocket watches). This probiotic-rich fermented tea is hawked as a nutritious alternative to soda and juice, and it is made out to be the ultimate health elixir with the power to do everything from improving digestion to easing anxiety to fending off cancer to zapping belly fat.

Reality Bites

Here, the sales pitch has outpaced the science, and because most kombucha studies have been conducted on rodents, there is little in the way of solid evidence to back up the health claims. Yes, kombucha is a convenient way to get your daily dose of gut-friendly probiotics. However, the strains found in kombucha might not be the ones you personally need the most, and a single bottle might not even contain enough of them to be of benefit. Many products also contain added sugar or juice to offset the slightly sour, vinegar-like taste, and because of its high acidity, your daily ‘booch habit may erode your tooth enamel — great news for your dentist but not so much for your smile.

Healthy Spin

If you enjoy the taste of kombucha and don’t eat a lot of dairy or other fermented foods, then you can certainly indulge on occasion. Purchase a product with less than 6 grams of sugar per serving, and absolutely look elsewhere for remedies for anxiety and cancer.

Protein Cookie

We hate to break it to you, but protein cookies are pretty much just regular cookies.

The Promise

High-pro cookies are being hailed as a healthy alternative to the newly vilified protein bars and contain a solid dose of whey or another plant-based protein — up to 15 grams per cookie. Many also have added fiber to lower the net carb count of the product, making them seem like a solid packaged-food option that won’t sabotage your nutrition.

Reality Bites

Alas, protein cookies are pretty much just regular cookies — though they taste more like dry chalk than grandma’s chocolate chunk. They do contain a little extra protein, but they are still highly processed and are often loaded with refined carbs, sugar, sodium and fat. What’s more, chicory root is often the added fiber ingredient, and while it may make you feel fuller for longer, it also can lead to unpleasant and uncomfortable GI issues.

Healthy Spin

If you have no other option, then eating a protein cookie now and again is not the end of the world. Just choose a product that has an equal (or nearly so) carb-to-protein ratio and that contains no more than 8 grams of sugar per serving (which might be just half a cookie, so read the packaging carefully). Also, look for cookies made with healthier ingredients like peanut butter and whole grains instead of palm oil and refined flour. But truthfully, if you’re craving a cookie, then eat a real one — after you’ve eaten a whole-food meal with better bioavailable protein sources like fish, beans and chicken.