Avoid These Secretly Unhealthy 'Health' Foods

By Alicia Persson
unhealthiestfoods

Health food trends spread like wildfire on social media. These days, it’s common to see influencers touting their favorite new energy bar or superfood on Instagram or YouTube. But how do you know if these supposed “health” foods are actually good for you? While many health foods promise results, they fail to be transparent about their hidden risks or actual lack of nutritional value.

So don’t be fooled by misleading labels the next time you go grocery shopping. Here are 30 'health' foods that are actually secretly unhealthy. 

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Reduced-Fat Peanut Butter

Reduced-fat foods often make up for the lack of flavor with other additives like sugar and salt. This is also the case with reduced-fat peanut butter. Opting for the reduced-fat brand of peanut butter is bigger travesty than you think. Why? Because fat from nuts is actually great for your health. The pure form of peanut butter contains Omega-3 fatty acids and L-arganine that promote heart health.

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Reduced-fat peanut butter contains more sugar than its traditional version. To make up for the loss of fat flavor, manufacturers insert ingredients like molasses and corn syrup to simulate the original taste. Therefore, the amount of calories in reduced fat and regular peanut butter are nearly identical, which doesn’t provide much incentive to switch. 

Granola

Granola is practically the poster child of health foods, which makes this item a surprising one. But, store-bought granola often contains tons of fat and sugar. This is especially true if you buy products infused with chocolate, dried fruit and other flavors like coconut. Some brands even have 400 calories and 13 grams of sugar per cup.

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If you’re trying to watch your calorie and sugar intake, then you need to read the labels carefully to make sure the brand you’re getting doesn’t overdo it on the sugar. For a healthier choice, go for plain granola with no added sugar or, better yet, make your own.

Green Juice

Many people are fooled into thinking anything green has to be healthy. Though green juice contains vegetables, store-bought versions contain added sugar to make it more palatable. Moreover, Consumer Reports has found that many of these store bought green juices are also high in sodium.

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Green juice also doesn’t include much fiber, which means it won’t have “staying power” and curb your hunger like a smoothie can. If you want a healthy version of green juice, buy a juicer and make your own drinks at home. That way you can control exactly what goes into your drink and reap the full benefits of a raw veggie diet. Try this low-sugar green juice recipe by Joe Cross for starters.

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Sports Drinks

Working out requires “electrolytes”, which are a blend of salt and sugar. Drinking them while being active helps athletes feel energized while playing sports, but this energy is coming from sugar levels that are slightly lower than sugary soft drinks. In fact, 20 ounces of Gatorade contains 36 grams of sugar. That’s nearly identical to the sugar found in a 12 ounce can of coke, which is 39 grams.

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Unless you’re training especially hard, your body doesn’t need additional salt and sugar to function properly. Eating a balanced diet throughout the day is preferable to trying to make up for it with a sports drink. If you want to stay hydrated during a workout, you’re better off opting for a bottle of water instead or making your own sugar-free electrolyte drink.

Chia Seeds

These tiny little seeds are the health world’s latest craze and have been praised for their practically endless uses. While they are one of the best sources of plant-based protein in the world, you can get too much of a good thing. For instance, eating too many chia seeds can irritate your intestinal tract.

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Chia seeds can also be a choking hazard and negatively interact with certain blood sugar and heart medications. To enjoy the benefits of chia seeds, first check with your doctor if you’re taking medication and rule out any negative interactions this food may cause. Also, limit yourself to one serving a day.

Flavored Coconut Water

The models we see on social media are sitting poolside with super-fit bodies and a cup of coconut water in hand, but is this drink really healthy? Sure, coconut water straight from the source is a good source of nutrients, but the flavored versions you find in the grocery store aren’t good for you.

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Flavored brands can have up to 29 grams of sugar per serving, which is the same as drinking a whole can of soda. For example, one serving of peach or mango flavored Vita Coco coconut water has 26 grams of sugar.

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Spinach Tortilla Wraps

Don’t let the green hue fool you. Though the bright green color of spinach tortilla wraps are attractive, it’s mainly just for show. The nutrition you’re getting from the small amount of spinach is minimal compared to actually eating fresh spinach.

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A healthier alternative would be to simply throw some actual spinach leaves into your wrap. While spinach wraps aren’t necessarily bad for your health, it’s important to know the facts – you’re definitely not getting a full serving of vegetables.

"Low-Fat" Dressing

Not long ago, “low fat” labels were everywhere in stores. Even though nutritionists know fat in moderation is actually good for you, food brands are still riding the “fat is evil” train (while reaping the profits). But this label is deceptive when it comes to salad dressings. Fat provides great flavor and when fat is extracted from food, manufacturers will make up for it in another way.

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Unfortunately, in the case of low-fat salad dressing, sugar is the ingredient that’s often used to make up for the lack of delicious fatty flavor. In fact, this trend has been found in other low-fat and nonfat foods in a recent study from the Nutrition & Diabetes Journal.

Agave Nectar

People have become more aware of the dangers of high sugar content in their diets and, as a result, natural sweetener companies are throwing out some false promises. We’re not saying these alternatives are bad, but they aren’t as “healthy” as companies claim. Agave nectar is one of these trendy sweeteners advertised as a sugar alternative, but it isn’t as “healthy” as the labels claim.

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Agave nectar has high amounts of fructose that can cause metabolic problems if eaten in large quantities. So, even though it ranks low on the glycemic index, its high levels of fructose are difficult for your body to metabolize. You can enjoy it in moderation, though. 

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Flavored Yogurt

Yogurt has a plethora of health benefits for people of all ages, provided it’s prepared the right way. Plain yogurt is a protein powerhouse and packed with probiotics that help keep your body balanced, but sugary additions like M&M’s and fruit flavoring can easily exceed your daily requirement of sugar in just one six ounce serving of yogurt.

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This doesn’t mean that you should avoid all yogurt, however. To reap the benefits of yogurt, avoid products enhanced with artificial colors, added sugars and flavors. A healthy alternative would be to add just a splash of honey to your plain greek yogurt.

Protein Shakes

Rigorous workouts require refueling afterwards. Many athletes and gym goers turn to protein shakes to stave off hunger and restore energy. Protein shakes taste great and certainly fill you up, but they aren’t the miracle health food many advertisements claim. If you’re not selective with your protein shakes, you can end up with a product that has plenty of added sugars or artificial sweeteners.

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In truth, many ready-made protein shakes will include additives to enhance its taste for its intended shelf life. To reap the benefits of protein without the sugar spike, opt for plain protein powder and blend it with your beverage of choice. You can also make your own protein shake at home so you can control exactly what your body is consuming. 

Energy Bars

The irony of the health food aisle is that many of the products marketed to the health-conscious can be processed. If you’re not careful with what energy bar you pick, you can bring home something full of sugar and empty calories.

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When selecting your energy bar, check the nutrition label and its ingredients. Healthier brands will stick close to the basics like seeds, nuts, fruit and honey. But overall, a better alternative would be to make your own delicious energy bars at home for half the cost. You’ll get more for your money and know exactly what’s going in your body.

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Turkey Lunch Meat

Making a sandwich at home is supposed to be healthier than takeout, but you aren’t doing much better if the building blocks of your lunch are full of salt. Lunch meat needs a decent shelf life to stay fresh, which causes manufacturers to add preservatives and sodium.

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Unfortunately, this can result in turkey meat containing more than one-third of the average adult’s daily sodium intake limit. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you need to give up on turkey. There are low-sodium versions of your favorite lunch meat available, but you should still be sure to consume it in moderation.

Turkey Bacon

Turkey is just not getting a break on this list, is it? Turkey bacon packages promise fewer calories than regular bacon, which is true. However, manufacturers fail to mention that this reduction in calories is often exchanged for processed meat with artificial colors.

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Turkey bacon also contains nitrates, as it’s cured with sodium nitrate. The American Institute for Cancer Research recently found a link between eating meats processed with sodium nitrate and digestive cancers. In addition, three pieces of turkey bacon have more than 400 milligrams of sodium. So, although it’s delicious and better than pork bacon, it isn’t actually a health food.

Rice Milk

Alternatives to cow’s milk have been popping up all over the place. Though the labels insist it’s “all-natural”, rice milk is nothing but a high carb, low calcium drink without fortification. In fact, it’s higher in sugar, carbohydrates and calories than soy milk. If it’s fortified, then it only gets a calcium boost.

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Even if it’s fortified, rice milk doesn’t have much protein, so it’s important to make up for this nutrient in other ways if you are selecting this beverage. If you need to avoid dairy but want a milk alternative that has protein, try soy milk.

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Veggie Patties

There’s a common misconception that all foods with vegetable ingredients are good for you. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth and takes some discerning to figure out what products are good for your body. Pre-made, frozen veggie patties are usually processed and packed with fillers instead of real vegetables.

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To be sure that you’re getting the real deal, look at the nutrition label. Manufacturers are required to list the most predominant ingredients in order. If you don’t see vegetables listed first, move on and look for something better. Making your own vegetable patties at home will take out any of the mystery (and preservatives) of your next meal.

Vegan Bacon

While the vegan diet is healthy by reputation, there are certain vegan food items that aren’t as healthy as you think. Vegan bacon is meant to be a replacement to animal-based bacon, but this kind of food is highly processed. The meat alternative is often made of tofu or tempeh, and can contain preservatives and high sodium levels to keep its flavor.

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To make sure you’re buying a vegan bacon product that’s actually healthy, check the nutrition facts to make sure that the ingredients and sodium levels aren’t absurdly high. There are some good options out there that vegans love, so be diligent in your search.

Flavored Instant Oatmeal

The convenience of overnight oats or a quick oatmeal breakfast draws many sleep-deprived people to flavored instant oatmeal. After all, what’s not to love about the great taste of creamy, fruity oats? Unfortunately, these instant packets are loaded with sugar and sodium. Manufacturers want their products to taste great without having the customer to do any work, but the result is a highly processed food that has many additives.

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A healthier alternative is to cook plain steel-cut oats and add your own fresh fruit. If you’re short on time, grab instant oatmeal that isn’t flavored and throw in a splash of organic honey. You can also try one of these great vegan recipes for homemade versions.

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Brown Rice Syrup

As the quest for sugar alternatives continues, manufacturers are offering more choices than ever and advertise them as “healthier” sweeteners. Brown rice syrup, or rice malt syrup is a sweetener derived from brown rice starch and is an alternative to high fructose corn syrup. Its main drawback, however, is that it’s loaded with empty calories.

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It contains nearly 100 percent glucose and has a glycemic index of at least 98. That’s higher than sugar, which has a glycemic index of 60 to 70 percent. If you consume too much of it, your blood sugar will spike quickly. It’s also a highly refined product, rendering it essentially void of nutrients.

Store Bought Dried Fruit

Another misconception is that all fruits are healthy foods. While fresh fruit is a great snack to keep your hunger at bay, dried fruit is shrunk down to 25 percent of its original size. Because of this, you’ll need to eat more of it to feel full, which means you’re taking in more fructose compared to eating fresh fruit.

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Additionally, many dried fruit products you’ll find in the store have added sugar and sulfites to preserve them. One ounce of dried peaches, which is equivalent to a handful of fruit, contains 16 grams of sugar. One small box of raisins contains 25 grams of sugar- one gram shy of a can of soda. 

Acai Bowls

Pop into your local trendy cafe and you may see this hot “healthy” item on the menu. Acai bowls contain the superfood Acai berries. While the berries and other toppings like nuts are excellent for your health, the amount of sugar in this dish adds up pretty quickly.

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Many acai bowls are loaded with calories and sugar as they contain frozen yogurt and other fruit items. While this dish tastes delicious it shouldn’t be mislabeled as a health food. For a healthier alternative, make your own acai bowl at home.

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Veggie Chips

Veggie chips appeal to people trying to get healthy with their “all natural” labels and packaging that suggests it’s a healthier alternative to potato chips. But like the Ruffles you’re trying to avoid, veggie chips are often deep-fried and full of salt.

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Another downer is that when veggie chips are processed, most of the nutrients are removed. If you want a healthier option, look for baked veggie chips and avoid anything fried or kettle cooked. Just don’t expect this snack to have a wealth of vitamins for you. Or, better yet, make your own at home.

"Low-Carb" Bars

Take a stroll down the health food aisle of the supermarket and you’ll be faced with countless fitness bars. Also known as “low-carb” bars, they are among the food items capitalizing on the gluten-free and Atkins diet trend. But be sure to look at the ingredients before you put any of these in your shopping cart. Most of these low carb bars are made of processed ingredients and chemicals.

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For example, the Atkins bar is mostly a combination of artificial sweeteners, soy, synthetic vitamins and sugar alcohols. All these ingredients equal a stick of processed food with little nutritional value. They’re also riddled with false advertisements, claiming to be “low in net carbs, but not total carbs”.

Instant Trail Mix

Nature lovers and working professionals alike love the convenience of trail mix. It’s an on-the-go energy powerhouse that can keep hunger at bay for hours. But the kind you’ll find at the grocery store can add additional sugar from banana chips, dried fruit or even some not-so-obvious chocolate chips.

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Trail mix can also include salted nuts, which greatly increase the levels of sodium in the mix. Little by little, these unhealthy additions can turn a potentially clean snack into a pile of junk food. To combat these pitfalls, check the product carefully to see what’s inside. If you don’t have access to a healthy trail mix, you can easily make your own ahead of time with ingredients you can personally vet.

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Bottled Green Tea

Once again, pre-packaged “health” drinks can bite the dust. Bottled green tea appears to be a healthier alternative to soda, but many of these products don’t include the antioxidant ECGC that draws many people to this drink. Many brands also throw in added sugar, which makes store teas an empty calorie party.

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With 20 ounces of Lipton green tea having over 11 teaspoons of sugar per bottle, you’re much better off steeping your own green tea at home. This way, you can drink it naturally without sugar, like they do in Japan. You can also add in a controlled amount of alternative sweetener like stevia or honey to make it more palatable.

Margarine

Margarine was elevated as a healthy food and low-fat alternative to natural butter’s high fat content. However, margarine holds a deadly secret: it’s a mixture of processed fats and food coloring. In fact, it used to be pink. If you’re not careful in your selection, you might be buying a product that contains refined vegetable oils and synthetic dyes.

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You should also be careful to check the labels for trans fats. Though some brands have eliminated this deadly component, not everyone has gotten on board. According to the American Heart Association, trans fats increase your chance of heart disease. Overall, margarine is a processed food, unlike butter which is just made out of cream. 

Pretzel Bites

Although this isn’t the worst food for you, the processed versions you find in the grocery store aren’t the best for you, either. Pretzels often carry the reputation of being healthy, but they’re actually just delightful bites of empty calories. Their white flour makeup strip them of most nutrients and they’re also coated with salt.

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If you want to eat a healthier version of pretzel bites, we suggest getting freshly baked pretzel bites at your local bakery, or finding whole wheat versions at the store. But still, these snacks don’t include many vitamins and minerals to carry you through the day. Overall, it’s important to eat these in moderation and not be deceived into thinking this snack is a health food.

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Bagels

Bagels fall into the same “empty calorie” trap. But this popular on-the-go breakfast and lunch item is here to stay. So, while packages advertise bagels as part of a healthy breakfast, it’s better to acknowledge them as the comfort food they really are. Not only do bagels lack vitamins and minerals, but they also don’t offer much fiber.

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In addition, bagels have a high glycemic index, which can make your sugar levels spike. A healthier way to enjoy this food is to select a whole grain bagel without any salty or sugary additions, and add a source of protein, such as an egg. 

Store-Bought Spaghetti Sauce

Spaghetti is a family favorite for its amazing taste and ease of preparation. Life is even easier when spaghetti sauce is readily available for three dollars at the supermarket. But this convenience comes at a price – processed ingredients, high sugar and lots of salt.

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Although these sauces taste great, extra unhealthy ingredients are required to keep its taste until its expiration date. The added sugar is also used to neutralize the acidity of the preserved tomatoes. For a healthier sauce, prepare your own at home. You can even keep it frozen for four to six months.

Microwave Popcorn

Take a stroll down the snack aisle and you’ll find various brands of popcorn trying to sell you “natural” microwave popcorn. Though this delicious snack is convenient and ready in minutes, microwave popcorn is usually full of trans fat and salt. Moreover, the FDA has identified the chemical coating inside microwave bags break down in the cooking phrase into a substance called perfluorooctanoic (PFOA), which is on a list of suspected carcinogens.

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The best course of action is to make your own popcorn from scratch. It only takes minutes and you can know exactly how much salt and butter you’re adding. And best of all, you’re skipping out on the chemical ingredients that can potentially harm you.

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Fruit Smoothies

The ready-made fruit smoothies you’ll find at your local grocery store look vibrant and fresh, but they are actually loaded with calories. The same goes for smoothies you make yourself, unless you’re careful about what ingredients you use. Your choice of fruit, yogurt and other add-ons can make your smoothie contain as much sugar as a candy bar, or a can of soda.

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To make sure you’re not taking a hit on your health journey, select low-sugar items like plain yogurt and integrate a few vegetables to offset the levels of fructose in your smoothie. You can also opt for plain protein powder instead of the versions with added sugar for a healthy drink without the junk.