Is Your Health Food Really Healthy?

My friend’s husband, Henry, recently bought a huge box of Yogos, confident that these “yogurty-covered, fruit-flavored bits” were a healthy choice for his kids.

“Not exactly,” his wife, a nutritionist, said when he presented her with the box. Sure, Yogos are fortified with 100 percent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C and some calcium. But the ingredient list begins with sugar and partially hydrogenated oils, and a small pouch (just shy of an ounce) of the pea-sized candies supplies 90 calories, two-thirds of which come from sugars. In fact, Yogos contain very little yogurt or fruit. How did this smart man get fooled into thinking this was health food?

No doubt Henry was deceived by what Brian Wansink, Ph.D., executive director of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and an EatingWell Advisory Board member, calls the “health halo” effect. Words like “yogurt” and “fruit” positively glow with such halos, since we consider these foods healthy in their natural state.

In his “McSubway” studies, reported last October in the Journal of Consumer Research, Wansink showed how we let our general impressions of foods mislead us. He asked people who had finished eating at McDonald’s or Subway to estimate the calories in their meals, then compared their guesses to the actual counts. Participants estimated that a Subway meal contained 21 percent fewer calories than a McDonald’s meal with the same calories. Wansink concluded that Subway’s “healthier than fast food” image was biasing customers’ calorie estimations. Today, his advice is, “Take your best estimate of how many calories you think the food contains, and double it!”

Don’t be fooled by health halos. Some of the worst offenders:

Energy bars usually contain protein and fiber—nutrients that help you feel full—but also may be loaded with calories. That’s fine if you occasionally make one a meal, but most of us eat them as snacks. You might as well enjoy a Snickers, which at 280 calories is in the same range as many energy bars.

Lesson learned: If you need something to tide you over until dinner, look for a calorie-controlled bar with about 5 grams of protein (e.g., Balance 100-calorie bar, Promax 70-calorie bar).

Granola sounds healthy. But it’s often high in fat, sugar and calories. Don’t be fooled by a seemingly reasonable calorie count; portion sizes are usually a skimpy 1/4 or 1/2 cup. Low-fat versions often just swap sugar for fat and pack as many calories as regular versions.

Lesson learned: Read granola labels carefully and stick with recommended portion sizes (which are teeny), perhaps as a topping on fruit or yogurt.

“Salads trip up many of my clients,” says my friend Anne Daly, R.D., director of nutrition and diabetes education at the Springfield Diabetes & Endocrine Center in Springfield, Illinois. Most of us could use more vegetables—so what’s not to love? In a word, toppings. The pecans and Gorgonzola cheese on Panera Bread’s Fuji Apple Chicken Salad (580 calories, 30 grams fat, 7 grams saturated fat) propel it into double-cheeseburger territory. A McDonald’s double cheeseburger has 440 calories, 23 grams fat, 11 grams saturated fat.

Lesson learned: Before ordering a salad, check its nutrition information plus that of the dressing and all add-ons (often, they’re listed separately).

Smoothies may seem like a tasty way to help get your recommended fruit servings—but studies show that beverages are less filling per calorie than solid foods. And added sugars can make some the equivalent of drinking fruit pie filling: the smallest (16-ounce) serving of Jamba Juice’s Orange Dream Machine weighs in at 340 calories, with 69 grams of sugars that don’t all come from orange juice. You’re better off with fresh-squeezed juices; orange juice has 110 calories per cup.

Lesson learned: Some smoothies pack as many calories as a milkshake. Look for those made with whole fruit, low-fat yogurt and no added sugars.

Yogurt is a great way to meet your calcium needs, but not all are created equally. Some premium whole-milk yogurts can give you a hefty dose of saturated fat. Shop around: many low-fat versions of these products are every bit as creamy. Enjoy a fruit-flavored low-fat yogurt, but understand that the “fruit” is really jam (i.e., mostly sugar). Or opt for low-fat plain and stir in fresh fruit or other sweetener to suit your taste; you’ll probably use less. My favorite, a tablespoon of Vermont maple syrup (52 calories), provides all the sweetness I need.

Lesson learned: Although they are still good sources of calcium, some yogurts can be closer to dessert than to a healthy snack. Don’t let fat and added sugars spoil a good thing.

Sushi is big in my family. There is a wide variety of sushi rolls out there and in some the fried tidbits and mayonnaise can really tuck in the calories. The Southern Tsunami sushi bar company, which supplies sushi to supermarkets and restaurants, reports its 12-piece Dragon Roll (eel, crunchy cucumbers, avocado and “special eel sauce”) has almost 500 calories and 16 grams of fat (4 grams saturated).

Lesson learned: Signature sushi rolls often come with a creamy “special sauce”; you should ask what’s in it. Or just order something simple: for example, a 12-piece California roll (imitation crabmeat, avocado and cucumber) or a vegetarian roll with cucumbers, carrots and avocado supplies around 350 calories and 6 or 7 grams of fat, and most of it is the heart-healthy mono unsaturated type.

Despite these precautions, I’m not trying to be a nutrition nanny. In truth, most of these foods can fit into a healthy diet if you know your limits. But do a reality check and read labels first. After all, as my friend told Henry, even if the Yogos package screams yogurt- covered fruit, the ingredients list proves it’s still candy.

Visit for free quick and easy healthy recipe collections!

By Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., Eating Well magazine


K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Sally Tinkham
Past Member 8 years ago

wow, never knew that about a salad!!!

Lucien Beauley
Lucien B9 years ago

We seem to be forgetting that much of our food is irradiated shortly after harvest or butcher and deleted of much of their original nutrients and enzymes. The irradiated foods are primarily delivered to restaurants, something that must be considered. Of course, it is done to protect us from dangerous pathogens. Really??

Amy W.
Past Member 9 years ago

Martha: I do know that a certain amount of calcium is found in foods like broccoli. I heard you can get all you need, if you are eating the right amount of vegetation. For some good information about dairy foods, I suggest going to He has some excellent information about why you want RAW dairy products, rather than pasteurized dairy products. I know, that's kind of a bummer if you like cheese. He says, too, that this pasteurization process is actually why so many of us are developing lactose intolerances, too. Also, NO SOY, unless it's traditional fermented products. You can find this information on the same website. This is useful information regardless if a person is vegetarian, vegan or otherwise. The soy products the public has been led to believe are so healthy for us are NOT health food. So, NO TOFU. It's funny how all other beans are fine for people. I did read the comments on the article about beans about kidney beans and crockpots or slow cookers. I didn't know that, but that's the one type of bean I don't eat anyway, so I don't have to worry about the toxicity the writer was mentioning. I'm good there. Since you're vegetarian, I know you'll be looking to beans for protein, so you need to know this about soy products. There is plenty of information about this on

Martha B.
Martha B9 years ago

As a relatively new vegetarian, I'm curious about the source of the protein requirements. I have heard that the protein requirements are probably inflated by interest groups who influenced the original food charts, and are right up there with the milk requirements that we used to hear about every day growing up, only to find out now that fat free milk (and maybe any processed milk) actually may deprive the body of calcium.

I try to think about what our long ago ancestors ate, for hundreds of thousands of years. I reckon they didn't drink milk until they began farming goats or cows, and I've read that that happened around 5000 years ago. Long enough to influence our gene pool, but not very long relative to our history as humans.

Cane sugar has only been in the non-tropical diet since the 16th Century, which seems like a long time to us, but evolutionarily speaking, isn't probably long enough to shape our body processes. Unless, of course, the ones that eat that junk and survive pass on some gene that likes cane sugar.

I guess that wasn't very helpful. It's just that I wonder who is deciding what our requirements are.

Amy W.
Past Member 9 years ago

Why is it that the people who should be reading this kind of information and following its advice are the least likely to do so? I had a friend who died from health complications to an auto-immune disease (No, not AIDS or HIV). While she was alive, it didn't matter what I said to try to warn her that Splenda falls into this same category that this article is talking about. She believed the hype that is used to promote and sell the products that contain this chemical sweetener. And, this, eventhough there is a long track record that these fake sugars are always proven dangerous. And, now I heard that the FDA is approving yet another sugar substitute based on the stevia herb. The trouble with that is that stevia itself, in its natural state, should NOT be used in the quantities that most people looking for a sugar substitute end up using. And, if manufacturers are going to "mess around" with it, you can be sure that it's going to be yet another dismal failure that is going to lead people down another pathway to false hope.

The key has always been the same all along: A healthy lifestyle that includes the right kind of lifestyle diet and exercise. There is no panacea for what the body really needs.

What Rachel said about a salad with pecans, gorgonzola and chicken still being better than who knows what in any overly-processed meal is absolutely true. One still needs to go easy on the cheese and other fatty foods, but in proper moderation, these foods are fine.

Caralien S.
Caralien S9 years ago

I started giggling at the Natural Cheetos and Tostitos section at Whole Foods. I place those up with fake foods that are filled with sodium/nitrite/MSG and food colourings to make them somewhat resemble what they're imitating. None of it's good for you, and pretending that it is is ridiculous.

If you're going to eat something you know isn't healthy, enjoy it. Just don't try to pretend that junk food and faux foods are somehow good for me.

Judith Blish
Judith Blish9 years ago

Watch out for those fake crabmeats, lobsters and shrimps. Some are wonderful: others are packed with sugar. You can taste it if alert. READ LABEL.

Rachel M.

It is best not to forget that if you lead an active lifestyle, a moderate portion of fat and sugar (i.e. the dreaded calories!) can be healthy, as our bodies do need some fuel to burn. Excessive amounts do clearly have adverse effects, however cutting them out compleatly is also not at all healthy.

For instance, the example of the salad, which uses pecans, gorgonzola and chicken, which have a higher-than-expected quantity of fat etc, has significantly less saturated fat, and is generally far better for you than the overly-processed McDonalds meal. The salad ingredients will also provide protien, something else which is vital for an everyday healthy life.

Healthy eating should be about all things in moderation, not simply cutting out 'bad' foods, in the process missing out on vital nutrition. So yes, do check labels, but a healthy lifestyle is not totally dictated by food you can and cannot eat.