Be wary of junk food disguised as healthy

Susan Salisbury / Cox Newspapers /


Published Aug 2, 2012 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Food marketers have made a big push over the past few years and rolled out so-called “better for you” products to fill the demand for more healthful foods.

But a closer look at some of those products reveals they aren’t any better, and in some ways, are worse than their standard counterparts. They can be more expensive, too.

Consumer Reports ShopSmart magazine’s June issue features 11 examples in “Junk Health Foods,” but you probably have some in your kitchen. There are hundreds if not thousands of such products on the market.

A lot of the junk health foods are a waste of money, and more expensive than the regular versions, said ShopSmart deputy editor Sue Perry.

Perry decided to look into such products after spotting chocolate-covered kale chips on the Internet.

“Talk about taking a perfectly good food and turning them into junk!” Perry said. “The minute you put chocolate on something, it becomes candy.”

Compare Jif Creamy Peanut Butter to Jif Reduced-Fat Creamy Peanut Butter. You might think that the reduced-fat version has fewer calories, but it doesn’t. Both have 190 calories per two tablespoons. The reduced fat peanut butter has four fewer grams of fat, but has 100 milligrams more sodium and one gram more sugar than the regular version.

In most cases, when fat is removed, it is replaced with additional sugars or sodium to maintain the flavor, Perry said. There’s also likely to be a longer ingredient list with chemicals you don’t want.

A comparison of Kettle brand Reduced Fat Salt and Pepper Potato Chips, Kettle Baked Salt & Fresh Ground Pepper Potato Chips and Kettle Sea Salt Potato Chips finds but a few minor differences. Calories per 1-ounce serving range from 120 to 150. The baked version has the least fat at 3 grams, and the reduced fat has the most sodium at 170 milligrams.

“A chip is a chip. You’re still getting fat, salt and sodium, and basically empty calories,” Perry said.

A better alternative? Try some air-popped popcorn seasoned with a spritz of olive oil, and a little sea salt and grated Parmesan cheese, ShopSmart suggests.

Consumers who don’t need gluten-free products but are buying them because they think they’re healthier should be aware the products can cost twice as much.

“A lot of people are mistaking gluten-free for healthier. That is not necessarily so,” Perry said. “If you are not gluten intolerant, and don’t have Celiac Disease, gluten-free is really not anything you have to have.”

ShopSmart compared Pamela’s gluten-free Chocolate Chip Cookies to Chips Ahoy Original. Comparing serving sizes by weight, the Pamela’s brand costs 49 cents versus Chips Ahoy at 17 cents. Plus, the Chips Ahoy cookies have 13 fewer calories, one gram less fat and seven grams less sodium than Pamela’s.

Baking is chemistry. If you use flour with no gluten, you have to make up the properties some other way, Perry said.

Sadly, ShopSmart has uncovered the truth about sweet potato fries versus fries made from white potatoes. McCain’s Sweet Potato Fries have more calories at 160 per three-ounce serving, than McCain Classic-Cut Fries, at 120 calories, and more fat, at seven grams versus three grams.

Sweet potatoes have more vitamin A and slightly more fiber than white potatoes, but white potatoes also have a lot of nutrients. Try a baked potato instead of fries, or at least limit the number of fries you consume.

If Special K Chocolatey Delight cereal is your secret, supposedly guilt-free snack, it’s time to face reality. You might as well have a bowl of the kid’s cereal, Cocoa Puffs. The nutritional content is about the same. Cocoa Puffs are slightly lower in calories, fat and sodium, with Special K containing one more gram of protein.

Craving chocolate?

“If you need a chocolate fix, you’re better off having an ounce of real chocolate,” Perry said.

Everyone needs a fun food once in a while, she said.

“We can’t live by the produce aisle and the grain aisle alone. I can’t,” Perry said.

Try to limit those indulgences to 100 to 200 calories a day, but go for the real thing, such as a half-cup serving of fat-free ice cream with a few simple ingredients.

“Don’t fool yourself by thinking you are being more noble by picking a healthier option. Chances are it is not that much healthier,” Perry said.

Is it really ‘better’?

ShopSmart magazine offers some basic pointers:

• Take a quick look at the labels. Compare the fat and calories.

• Check the ingredient list. Shorter is better. A long list with a lot of chemicals indicates the food is heavily processed.

• Consider the price. Is the so-called heathier version more expensive? Is it worth it?