Making healthy food choices is never easy. It is made more challenging by the fact that some foods that appear to be a smart choice may be less healthy than you think. Often, prepackaged fruits and vegetables contain added sugar, fat or salt, making them less healthy than eating them fresh. Consumption of these foods can also make it less likely that people – especially children – will eat fresh fruits and vegetables when they are available. Here are some examples of foods that may appear to be healthy but, upon closer examination, turn out to be less nutritious than we might think.
Fruit snacks: These gummy fruit treats are a favorite among kids. If you check the package you will probably see that they contain real fruit or fruit juice, so they must be healthy, right? While there is variation among different brands, in most cases these snacks contain little, if any, actual fruit. If you read the ingredients you will see that they do contain lots of added sugar, meaning that many of these snacks are essentially candy. In fact, if you compare some brands of fruit snacks with something that is easily recognized as candy, such as gummy bears, you will see that they have a similar sugar content.
Fruit drinks: Not everything that looks like fruit juice is actually juice. Take Sunny D for example. This popular orange drink contains mostly sugar and water – and only 5 percent juice. By contrast, real orange juice contains fewer calories and more vitamins per serving. In fact, if you compare the ingredients and nutrition information, Sunny D is essentially orange soda without the bubbles!
There are two problems with this. First, some foods that appear to be healthy because they either claim to or actually do contain fruit are actually less healthy than we might believe. Considering that fruit snacks and fruit drinks are likely to be consumed as alternatives to real fruit juice or a piece of fruit as a snack, these foods could lead to poor nutrition. This is especially true in children.
Second, sweetness is one of the most important tastes we respond to. Consuming food and beverages that are flavored like fruit but are actually much sweeter may make real fruit less palatable. Again, this is especially true for children who may develop an expectation that strawberries should taste like strawberry-flavored fruit snacks or that orange juice should taste as sweet as Sunny D. These kids are likely to prefer the sugar-sweetened version over the real fruit. Since these sugar-sweetened “fruits” tend to be higher in calories, consumption of these foods is one contributor to childhood obesity.
This isn’t just the case with fruit. Adding salt and sauces to vegetables makes them more flavorful, to the point that many of us don’t eat plain vegetables very often. The majority of potatoes are consumed in the form of French fries, loaded with both fat and salt. This has changed how we expect potatoes to taste so that now we typically eat baked potatoes “loaded” with butter, sour cream, cheese or bacon. When was the last time you ate a plain baked potato?
But there are some simple steps you can take to get back to eating real fruit and vegetables. Look for 100 percent fruit juice or, better yet, a piece of fruit instead of fruit-flavored drinks. Instead of sugar-sweetened fruit snacks, try dehydrated fruit. Cut back on the salt, butter, and other toppings you add to vegetables or purchase frozen vegetables without added sauces.
Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior. He is a member of the American College of Sports Medicine and is an ACSM certified clinical exercise specialist; his research focuses on physical activity in weight management and the impact of the environment on activity and diet. Parr lives in Aiken with his wife, Laura, and sons Noah, Owen and Simon.