I opened the freezer door at my local Kroger to reach for a pint of Halo Top ice cream. “Is that one of those healthy ice creams? Is it good?” a stranger asked. I resisted the urge to go into a monologue on the difference between “healthy” and “not as damaging,” but I responded with a simple, “Yes, it’s delicious.”
Healthy food nourishes our bodies. Minimally processed foods from nature are the best for our health. In most cases you can quickly determine if a food is healthy with two simple questions: Is it derived from nature? Is it minimally processed?
IS HALO TOP ICE CREAM HEALTHY?
Halo Top marketing claims it is a healthy alternative to ice cream, and while it is lower in calories, fat and sugar than its counterparts, it’s important to note the difference between “healthy” and “not as damaging as the alternative.”
Does it come from nature? No. Is it processed food? Yes. Does it nourish the body? No. Does that mean you should never have it? I’m not saying that.
It’s just important to realize that foods marketed as healthy are often just moderately less-unhealthy than their full-calorie counterparts. Is it better? Yes, but there’s a difference between better and healthy.
If you eat ice cream every night, switching to Halo Top is an improvement—a step in the right direction. In fact, if you currently eat full-fat, high-calorie ice cream on a regular basis, I recommend Halo Top as an alternative, but ice cream is still not health food.
The label is quick to advertise that you can eat the whole pint for only 280 calories! It’s 20 grams of protein! Which sounds great, but you have to do the math from the nutrition label to calculate it is also 68 grams of processed carbs, 28 grams of sugar, and 20 grams of sugar alcohols. They don’t put that part in big print on the front of the package.
If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll see that I eat Halo Top occasionally, in moderation. I don’t fool myself that I am eating healthy food. It’s ice cream. I enjoy it, so I make it work in my diet sometimes. I try not to eat the entire pint in one sitting, but try is the keyword. These foods are specifically manufactured to make it hard to stop eating. They encourage you to “stop when you get to the bottom,” right on the package.
There’s no reason you can’t include Halo Top in your diet as part of a healthy lifestyle, but eat it with your eyes open. If you follow the 80/20 rule of nutrition (80% healthy, 20% treats) be clear that Halo Top falls squarely in 20% category.
MISLEADING NUTRITION MATH
When was 15-years-old I worked at Dairy Queen. It was an excellent job for a 15-year-old’s metabolism because a perk of the job was free ice-cream! Ice cream as a bonus would surely be a detriment to my health and weight today.
We had a giant sign on the side of the building that read “Our ice cream is 95% fat-free.” Woo-hoo! That sounds practically healthy! An ice cream cone had five grams of fat, technically making it 95% fat-free. The advertising, of course, fails to mention it has 26 grams of sugar in a small cone (hey, that’s about the same as a pint of Halo Top).
No one was ever fooled into thinking that a treat from Dairy Queen is a health food, but the marketing implies it’s not that bad (95% fat-free!). Beware of fuzzy nutrition math.
UNDERSTANDING NUTRITION BUZZWORDS
As the public becomes more health conscious, the food manufacturers try to appeal to our desire to make healthier choices with nutrition buzzwords that sound healthy, but if you’re not paying attention, those nutrition buzzwords could kill your results.
Healthy sounding buzzwords on a package doesn’t automatically mean it is healthy.
Let’s play a game. How many nutrition buzzwords can you name that have no bearing on the health status of a food? I’ll start:
The word natural is entirely unregulated and is on many “unnatural” foods. Highly processed granola bars and protein bars often have a natural label. Unless it is raw from nature, it’s not natural. If it’s in a box or package, it’s likely not natural.
Organic is a healthy choice if you choose to spend more money on organic fruits and vegetables. But packaged foods labeled as organic are usually processed foods implying that they’re healthy. The word organic does not equal healthy. Organic pizza and potato chips are still junk foods.
Fat-free on a package is often a red flag that it is not a healthy choice (exception: some dairy products). They usually remove the fat and then add sugar and other processed ingredients to improve the taste. Like in my Dairy Queen example, low-fat or Fat-free does not equate to healthy; it usually means it is high in sugar.
Sugar-free labels usually mean sweetened with artificial sweeteners. While artificial sweeteners are probably fine in moderation, it doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Diet soda is sugar-free; it is certainly not health food by any stretch of the imagination.
If you choose non-GMO products, that is your right and choice. I do not.
However, a non-GMO label does not mean it is a healthier choice than a product without it. Often the label is applied to products without a GMO counterpart, which is misleading, at best.
There are only ten GMO crops: corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya, squash, apples, and potatoes. So when there are two cartons of orange juice and one is labeled Non-GMO, and one is not, the non-GMO choice is not a healthier choice because of the label.
It’s important to understand that no oranges are GMO, and the label is a marketing tactic. I always buy the one without the non-GMO label because I’m annoyed by the use of deceptive marketing practices.
Those non-GMO gummy bears and chocolate bars are not healthier than their counterparts without a label.
Unless you have an intolerance or sensitivity, Gluten is not unhealthy and generally does not need to be avoided in healthy adults. Gluten-free foods have less fiber and therefore, a bit less healthy than their alternatives when an intolerance is not present. Gluten-free cookies and cupcakes don’t count as healthy food. Sorry.
Multigrain on a label means made from more than one type of grain. It does not reveal what percentage of each kind of grain, which may include refined grains, stripped of fiber and natural nutrients. Look for whole grains listed towards the top of the ingredients list.
Processed food manufacturers often add an antioxidant, such as vitamin C or E, as a marketing effort. Cereal or granola bars with an antioxidant label is junk food with an additive — boost antioxidants in your diet by eating a wide variety of fruits, berries, and vegetables.
All fruits and veggies are superfoods. Processed foods with a superfood label are not.
What does eating clean mean? It doesn’t mean anything, that’s why it's slapped on all kinds of processed “health” foods. Wash your vegetables before eating, and they will be clean. Otherwise, it’s a meaningless marketing label.
It’s your liver’s job to detoxify your body. If it’s not functioning correctly, you’ll rush to the hospital. There is nothing you can eat or drink to detoxify your body (other than consuming minimally processed foods from nature most of the time).
If something is Keto-friendly, it means that it is low in sugar and carbs. That can be healthy, but not always. It may be high in processed ingredients, saturated fat, and calories.
Vegan means there are no animal products in the ingredients. There are plenty of examples of unhealthy foods that are Vegan: marshmallows, gummy bears, processed fake-meats, crackers, and soda to name a few. Vegan diets can still be high in fat, sugar, and processed ingredients. The absence of animal products doesn’t automatically make it healthy.
A paleo diet is high in protein and low in carbs (and eliminates grains and dairy). A packaged food labeled as Paleo-friendly is not Paleo in itself because cavemen did not eat packaged foods or have Pinterest to learn how to make Paleo-friendly peanut butter cups. (Oh boy, I’m getting a bit snarky. hah.) It’s not the diet I have an issue with, it’s the food manufacturer slapping a label on a processed food to make it appear healthier.
A low-carb label often is a red flag that it may be a high fat and calorie food. A low-carb label does not equal healthy if it is high in calories, processed ingredients or unhealthy fats. You have to read the label to understand. Low-carb cookies are still cookies, not optimal health food.
Naturally-flavored on a label means next to nothing. You’ll find this label on many processed foods. If you want naturally-flavored foods, eat foods from nature.
Did I miss any?
To be perfectly clear, I am not suggesting that products with these labels are automatically unhealthy either, only that you can’t blindly trust the marketing, and a little more investigating is necessary to understand.
HOW TO READ A NUTRITION LABEL
The best foods to eat for health are the ones that don’t come in a package at all: vegetables, fruits, and meats.
Of course, there are healthy foods that are packaged, such as eggs, old-fashioned oatmeal, canned beans, packaged tuna, frozen veggies, frozen fruits, rice, quinoa, and unflavored Greek yogurt to name a few. The key is to learn to read the label and ignore the marketing buzzwords to make the best choices.
READ THE INGREDIENTS LIST FIRST
Ingredients are written by volume, so if sugar is the first ingredient listed, that means it has more sugar than anything else. The healthiest packaged foods usually have an ingredient list that is short with mostly recognizable elements.
TAKE NOTE OF THE SERVING SIZE
Take note of the serving size. Often food labels have unreasonably small serving sizes. Cereal usually lists a serving size such as 1/2 or 1/3 cup. If you’ve ever poured a bowl of cereal without measuring, you likely poured at least twice that much.
In my Halo Top example, a serving size is 1/4 of the container. Are you eating 1/4 of it, or are you consuming the whole pint? If you eat the entire pint, you need to multiply the calories, sugar, and fat grams by four to get your total intake. Most people aren’t paying that close attention. The label says seven grams of sugar, but if you eat the container you are really consuming 28 grams.
REVIEW THE NUTRITION FACTS LABEL
Once you evaluate the ingredients list and take note of the serving size, review the nutritional facts label to ensure the calories, fat grams, carbohydrates, sugar, protein, and sodium intake align with your goals. Some people prefer higher fat and lower carbs, some aim for higher carbs and lower fat, while others just make sure their calories are in check. There is no right and wrong way that applies to everyone. What makes you look, feel, and perform your best? Do more of that.
WATCH FOR ADDED SUGARS
Added sugars on the ingredient list are often disguised with tricky names, such as cane juice, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, molasses, and fruit juice. Here are 100 more alternative names for sugar.
FIVE OF THE WORST OFFENDERS
The worst offenders of junk foods disguised as health foods are:
Flavored yogurt cups: Check the sugar content, they are often as high as ice cream. Buy plain Greek yogurt and flavor at home with berries or fruit for a much healthier alternative.
Protein bars: These are glorified candy bars. If it tastes like a candy bar, then it’s a candy bar with added protein. Aim to get protein from whole food sources instead of this highly processed food.
Granola: Store bought granola almost always has sugar as the first ingredient. It’s fine to consume in moderation, but with questionable ingredients and high sugar content, it doesn’t qualify as a health food. Make granola at home for a healthier alternative.
Cereal: Almost all cereal is processed junk food, even the ones that are marketed as a healthy choice. Check the serving size, sugar content, and ingredient list to make the best choices. If you compare a typical sugar-laden cereal (such as the Lucky Leprechaun) to one that is meant to be healthy they usually have surprisingly similar nutrition profiles.
Fruit Juice: Those fruit juices are labeled to sound healthy, but the grocery store juices are usually pure sugar, not even made from real fruit. Eat a piece of real fruit instead.
The purpose of this article is not to tell you what you should or should not eat, it’s to make you more aware of misleading food labels so you can make better informed choices. I choose to eat unhealthy foods sometimes too, but I do it with awareness. I allow myself the indulgence without guilt. If I eat an organic pizza it’s not because I think it’s a health food, it is because it is delicious, and that’s ok too.
Make your food choices based on the ingredient lists and nutrition facts that align the most with your goals and values, and ignore the marketing all together. No matter how you choose to fuel your body, if you’re not paying attention, nutrition buzzwords can kill your results.
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