You probably already know that real food is healthier than processed food. But sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s real because of the way foods are marketed. Once-healthy items such as vegetables, beans and nuts can become processed foods. Even if they start out as something good, what matters most is how they end up. Foods are manipulated and then advertised with words such as “healthy,” “real” and “contains vegetables” to make them sound more nutritious than they really are – but don’t be fooled. Here’s how some well-marketed processed foods compare with the real thing.
— Carrot sticks vs. “veggie sticks”: I’ve met many parents who think that “veggie sticks” (those strawlike chips made with vegetable powder) are the miracle they’ve been waiting for, because they can finally get their kids to eat vegetables. That’s because this snack’s packaging includes claims such as “made with spinach,” “now with sweet potato” and “100% all natural.” One brand even boasts that it contains the same vitamin content as 2 1/2 cups of broccoli, seven cups of spinach, two carrots” and more. Yikes. Please take heed: A tiny sprinkle of vegetable powder infused into a crunchy snack is not the same as eating a serving of vegetables. Veggie sticks are fine to serve as a treat, but they should not be confused with real veggie sticks – also known as carrots, celery and cucumber.
— Whole-grain vs. gluten-free bread: Gluten-free foods were created for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. But “gluten-free” has morphed into a marketing buzzword that people erroneously equate with “healthy.” According to a survey of more than 1,500 U.S. adults, 38 percent eat gluten-free foods because they believe they’re better for their overall health. But studies show that most gluten-free foods contain more fat and salt – and less fiber, protein and vitamins – than their gluten-containing counterparts. A dense, whole-grain sprouted bread made from fiber-rich, wholesome ingredients is a much healthier choice than a gluten-free bread made from fiber-free cornstarch, tapioca and rice flour. Gluten-free does not mean healthier.
— Hamburgers vs. veggie burgers: Plant-based diets are healthy, so it’s a safe assumption that a veggie burger is a healthier choice than a hamburger, right? Not always. Hamburgers can be as simple as beef and salt. Veggie burgers often have 20 or more ingredients, including non-nutritive cornstarch and thickeners such as methyl cellulose. And although beef burgers are naturally high in protein, most veggie burgers contain wheat gluten, a cheap protein substitute (and one that’s considered a potential contributor to the increase in celiac disease diagnoses in the past decade). Some veggie burgers are made of good-quality protein from beans, lentils and soy, but they may be so highly processed that the health benefits fade away. Read ingredient lists to compare brands, and don’t make your decision based on marketing words such as “vegan” and “all-natural.”
— Loose trail mix vs. trail mix bars: Good ol’ raisins and peanuts are perfect for a hike, and manufacturers have attempted to make this age-old snack even more convenient by turning it into a bar. The trouble is, to get the ingredients to fuse together, they need to add something sticky and sweet. Enter sugar. Whether it’s honey, maple syrup or agave, adding two or three teaspoons of sugar to your once-natural trail mix is never a good idea. The bars may come in packages emblazoned with words such as “natural,” “real food” and “nothing artificial,” but that tells you nothing about the sugar content. Plain nuts, seeds and dried fruit are a better choice than bars that contain added sweeteners.
— Popcorn vs. “Smartfood”: Any food that has the word “smart” in it should ring alarm bells. If marketers have to convince you that it’s a smart choice, you should read the package carefully to be sure. In this case, popcorn is your better option. A three-cup serving of oil-popped popcorn has 126 calories, no sodium and just two ingredients. Three cups of Smartfood (white cheddar) popcorn has more ingredients, 290 calories and 525 mg of sodium. If you truly want to be smart, buy kernels and pop your own at home.
— Fried vs. baked potato chips: Marketing has led us to believe that baked snacks are healthier than deep-fried ones. A bag of baked chips boasts “65 percent less fat.” So what? That claim was powerful in the ’90s, when we were taught that fat is bad. We now know that’s not true, yet the claim persists. Here’s the skinny: In most cases, both types of chips have about the same number of calories, and the baked version often has more sodium to make up for the lack of flavor when the fat is removed. Plus, the baked version is higher in starchy carbs, which studies show are worse for you than a bit of vegetable oil. Although it’s not a health food, when you’re craving chips, go for a small portion of the real deal.
Registered dietitian Cara Rosenbloom is president of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company specializing in writing, nutrition education and recipe development. She is the co-author of “Nourish: Whole Food Recipes Featuring Seeds, Nuts and Beans.”