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Junk in a Box: 4 Popular Foods Marketed as Healthy

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You've seen "protein bars" in the store -- and they are good-looking! They might have a rock climber on them, or maybe a night sky. They seem like a quick and tasty way get your protein. However, flip them over, read the label and you'll find they are really processed junk food with attractive packaging and a healthy name attached.

What's the truth about foods in a box or other container and how can you, as a consumer, decipher the truth and eat healthfully? Let's look at four popular items that are marketed as healthy, but have limited nutritional value.

1. "Protein" bars -- these bars have been around for over a decade, and can look attractive in their packaging. Most are glorified candy bars. Some have names like "skinny," "thin," or "slim" on the label, but they are anything but that.

Unfortunately, the main protein used in bars is soy protein isolate. This is made from non-genetically modified soybeans that undergo a high-temperature process that makes the powder a poor quality of protein.

Additionally, most bars contain multiple ingredients, including numerous sources of sugar (glucose syrup, dextrose, maltodextrin, high-fructose corn syrup or HFCS, etc.) as well as hydrogenated oils, artificial colors, and flavorings. They add vitamins and minerals to appear healthy, but do you really need to get your vitamins in candy bar form?

If you want a portable protein bar, look for one with fewer than five ingredients and containing nuts/seeds, and honey for the sweetener. Avoid ones with non-nutritive or fake sweeteners or agave, which contains more fructose than high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

2. Frozen entrées with words such as "lean, "healthy," and "organic." I remember the days when a babysitter came over and we all looked forward to getting a TV dinner. Now these entrees are the norm and many people are buying frozen dinners regularly. But, has convenience replaced health?

Pick up any frozen entrée and you will see it contains multiple ingredients, none of which resemble real food. I counted the ingredients on a popular national entrée (chicken and rice) that most would consider okay. It contained 45 ingredients, including a high amount of sodium.

If you want the convenience of frozen food, stick to frozen vegetables that do not have added sodium. Or choose frozen fruit, especially during the winter when produce is not as readily available.

3. Sweetened yogurts -- marketed as healthy for your gut and full of probiotics. The truth is that most yogurts sweetened with sugar have between 30 and 45 grams of total carbohydrate per serving -- the equivalent of two to three slices of bread. In addition, the sugar negates the benefits of the probiotics, so you are wasting your money and calories.

Those that do not have sugar contain non-nutritive sweeteners, which are 300-500 times sweeter than sugar, which leaves you wanting more sweet.

Ideally, the best yogurt to eat is plain, which has just milk and live and active cultures. Since yogurt has been fermented, many people who do not tolerate milk can handle yogurt. You can sweeten it yourself with fruit (frozen berries work well for a great natural sweetener) and top with raw nuts and cinnamon for a great breakfast or anytime snack.

4. Sugar-sweetened cereals marketed as "whole grains" -- cereals are big business in America, and you'll often see entire aisles devoted to them. But, are they really the healthiest breakfast around?

Most cereals are entirely carbohydrate. Consuming this type of processed breakfast will not hold most individuals for more than two hours. As a dietitian, I frequently hear, "Eating breakfast makes me hungry." This is because eating cereal triggers an increase and resulting drop in blood sugar. Add additional sweeteners and colors to the cereal, and it's like you are eating a candy bar for breakfast.

So, how do you maintain a healthy diet and avoid these foods? Start by looking at the list of ingredients and see if it passes the fewer-than-five-ingredients litmus test. Then read on to see if the product has healthy ingredients that you can recognize as food.

Otherwise, stick with fresh, unprocessed foods that do not have labels and limit your exposure to food in packages. A food may sound healthy, but the key is looking at the ingredient list so you can detect the truth and avoid adding extra sugars, sweeteners and multiple ingredients to your body for real health.

Susan is the author of A Recipe for Life by the Doctor's Dietitian. Her new book Healthy You, Healthy Baby: A mother's guide to gestational diabetes is now available. For more information, visit susandopart.com.

For more by Susan B. Dopart, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., click here.

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