‘Healthy’ food alternatives you should actually avoid

The packaging that contains your food tells a story—it’s like a commercial for the product inside. Its primary goal? To convince you to buy. That’s why there are bold claims all over food packaging that boast great taste, unparalleled freshness, and new, exciting ingredients.

healthy foods that are unhealthy

Some foods—sugar-free, low-fat, and non-GMO foods—may be no healthier than their traditional counterparts.

As consumers become more health conscious, though, food marketers have learned that great taste isn’t always the first thing on their minds. Sure, taste matters, but what about health? Will this product make me feel good or guilty? Will it help or hurt my heart health? Will my waist size shrink or grow?

Retailers launch new products every day to meet the needs of those looking to consume their way to better health. But the truth remains that many products that are marketed as healthier alternatives to the foods we love still aren’t healthy. Here are the top three.

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Non-GMOs

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are plants and other organisms whose genetic makeup has been engineered by humans into an altered organism that does not occur in nature. And since “natural” is often mistakenly assumed to mean “healthy” in health-conscious circles, it’s no wonder many marketers and consumers are placing increased focus on selling and buying non-GMO foods.

The bottom line, though, is that science hasn’t come to a clear conclusion about whether GMO or non-GMO foods are healthier. But evidence does suggest that GMO foods can bring huge benefits to society, and at the very least, they’re no more harmful than non-GMO foods.

At a population level, genetically modified crops are putting a big dent in worldwide malnutrition. Since their introduction in 1996, genetically modified crop production has increased more than 100-fold, reducing food insecurity, promoting access, and decreasing prices for consumers. Studies suggest that close to 2 billion people worldwide suffer from “hidden hunger,” malnutrition caused not by a lack of food overall, but lack of quality calories from the foods available to them. Fortunately, it’s now possible to nutritionally enhance, or biofortify, crops with increased bioavailability of essential nutrients. Technologies similar to biofortification have been used to fend off chronic illnesses, including heart disease and cancer. 

Moreover, there does not appear to be any safety concern associated with the consumption of GMOs. Hundreds of research studies have compared the effects of traditional food to GMOs and none have uncovered any toxicity or other adverse events related to GMO consumption.

Scientists have also been able to demonstrate that GMOs do not result in any changes in organ function in animals who eat them. Nor do GMO foods alter our genes or have cross-generational effects on children of parents who consume them. In short, paying extra for certified non-GMO foods may not be worth the additional cost.

No-sugar alternatives

Experts agree that artificial sweeteners like aspartame and saccharin are safe for human consumption. They also agree that too much sugar in the diet is harmful, and could lead to compulsive overeating, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and inflammatory diseases. Thank goodness for diet and no-sugar alternatives, right?

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Not so fast. Avoiding sugar-sweetened beverages is a wise health decision, but switching to the diet version of your favorite sugary drink doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll avoid the same health consequences. In a 2015 systematic review and meta-analysis in BMJ, researchers pooled data from more than 38,000 subjects and found that artificially-sweetened beverages were unlikely to be healthy alternatives to sugar-sweetened beverages because they showed positive associations with the incidence of type 2 diabetes.

What’s more, according to a 2017 review published in Nutrition and Obesity, artificial sweeteners have failed to live up to promises to reduce insulin resistance and obesity. Instead, they may contribute to metabolic syndrome and the obesity epidemic.

What’s so unhealthy about artificial sweeteners? They “appear to change the host microbiome, lead to decreased satiety, alter glucose homeostasis, and are associated with increased caloric consumption and weight gain,” the authors wrote. Not only are the artificial sweeteners themselves lacking health benefits, but they increase the likelihood that you’ll make unhealthy decisions after consuming them.

Low fat foods

Eating fat leads to being fat, right? Bad fats—like saturated and trans fats—can pose health risks. So why not buy some of the low-fat or non-fat alternatives to your favorite foods? Before you put those reduced fat products in your shopping cart, pause and take a quick look at the nutrition label. While these alternatives may lack bad fats, they typically have much higher sugar content, according to a study published in Nutrition & Diabetes.

Researchers pulled data from the US Department of Agriculture’s National Nutrient Database and found that foods categorized as low fat, reduced calorie, light, non-fat, and fat-free all had higher sugar content than “regular” versions of the same items. This remained true across subgroups of foods including dairy products, baked goods, meats (including fish and poultry), fats, oils, and salad dressings.

“Although the increase in added sugar per serving appears to be small, the cumulative effect of consuming ‘empty calories’ over several years could have important health consequences,” the authors wrote, including increased risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. “Ironically, individuals who believe they are choosing healthier versions of their favorite foods are trading fat for less healthy sugar.”

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Indeed, not all fats are bad. The body needs fats to function, and foods that are high in natural fats, like eggs, yogurt, and nuts, are good for you.

Bottom line

The American food retail and food service industry is a huge business. In 2019, it supplied about $6.22 trillion in food to American consumers. Like any big industry, the businesses that comprise it are always looking for new ways to meet the demands of their consumers—and new ways to make a buck.

Healthy-savvy consumers must be mindful that the most important part of food packaging is the nutrition label and ingredients list—almost everything else is part of a finely tuned marketing effort to convince you to buy the product, whether it’s good for you or not.

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