Is health food really healthy?

Nutritionists urge consumers to pay greater attention to food labels

Nutritionists urge consumers to pay greater attention to food labels

August 21, 2006|by TIFFANY ARNOLD

In some circles, pork rinds are health food, rice cakes are no-nos and bunless burger orders and low-carb beer aren't out of the ordinary.

For others, it's following the buzz words - "low-fat," "low-sugar," "low-carb" or "organic" - that direct health-food purchases.

With all the options, it's getting harder for consumers to determine which foods are really health foods, said Tammy Thornton, director of the Washington County Health Department's Nutrition and Wellness Program.

And in many cases, people who think they're eating the good stuff, might as well be eating the junk, Thornton said. The ambiguity around what is and what isn't healthful to eat is a major factor in obesity, Thornton said.

Commissioned by the Washington County Health Department, Johns Hopkins Research Center in Hagers-town randomly surveyed the eating habits of 3,009 Washington County residents in 2002. Nearly a third of the survey's respondents were obese, those with a weight-to-height ratio of 30 or greater. (You can calculate your body-mass index at Of those who were obese, 27 percent said they had dieted 12 or more times.


"I have clients who come to me and say, 'I hardly eat anything - why am I so heavy?'" Thornton said.

Healthful or not?

Instead of dieting, Thornton said people need to pay greater attention to food labels. More often than not, the items most people consider as "health foods" contain loads of sugar, trans fats and salt, Thornton said.

Take yogurt, for example.

"That's another food that gets a halo put over it," said Cynthia Harriman, spokeswoman for the Whole Grains Council, a Boston-based interest group for the grain industry.

"They put so much sugar in that stuff, it's amazing," said Harriman, adding that granola bars are notorious for having added sugar.

Harriman teaches nutrition courses in the Boston area.

The labels of Kraft's Light n' Lively low-fat yogurt in strawberry and blueberry flavors, for example, list sugar as the third ingredient. They also contain two types of corn syrup, other forms of sugar. Of the 110 calories found in one serving of either flavor, 71 come from added sugar, according to Thornton's calculations.

Many cereal manufacturers have started using whole-grain flour, but critics say that those cereals are still on the sugar-heavy side.

"I've had a lot of people, a lot of journalists say to me, 'How dare General Mills label all of their cereals whole grain. Isn't that misleading?'" Harriman said. "Well, they aren't saying it's a health food. It's a sugary children's cereal with whole grains in it."

SnackWell's sugar-free shortbread is another example, Thornton said.

The product's nutrition label boasts zero grams of trans fat for each 30-gram serving. Trans fat is considered a "bad fat" that raises cholesterol levels.

However, Thornton noted that the ingredients on the cookie box included "hydrogenated cottonseed oil," which contains trans fats.

"I really understand why food manufacturers do what they do," Thornton said. "They take out all the fat and sugar, but then find other ingredients that give it a good taste."

Normal diet

While nutrition experts acknowledge that people might be unknowingly eating the bad stuff, they urge people to avoid diets that exclude an entire food group.

"Dieters are my most frustrating clients. They're just looking for the next diet," said Thornton, who admitted to having a fondness for Snickers bars.

Fixing the problem of obesity, Thornton said, means returning to "normal eating."

"I'm a firm believer in everything in moderation," she said. "We've just gotten away from what I call normal eating - enjoying that cookie instead of eating it on the run."

"Normal eating" has become such an issue, Thornton said, that the Washington County Health Department is offering a training workshop for professionals and will host a public conference on eating competence this fall. The purpose of each session is to clear up the ambivalence about what it means to eat healthfully - or "normal eating" in Thornton's terms.

Getting the most out of 'health' foods

Tammy Thornton, director of the Washington County Health Department's Nutrition and Wellness Program, and Cynthia Harriman, educator and spokeswoman for the Whole Grains Council, offer a few tips for better eating:

· Yogurt - Buy it plain. If you must have it sweet, mix in fresh fruits or jam. You also can add a dollop of a sugar-sweetened brand of yogurt for extra flavor. To find out how much sugar is added to a flavored brand, subtract the sugar content listed on the label from the amount of sugar found in the brand's plain product.

· Children's cereal - If your child wants the sugary cereal brands, mix them with the less sweet brands. Cinnamon Toast Crunch, for example, goes well with Chex. Apple Jacks and Cheerios are also a good match.

· Sports drinks - Sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade have electrolytes and other nutrients, but they also have a high sugar content. An athlete would do just as well by eating a banana - a potassium-rich fruit (potassium is good for preventing cramps) - and drinking water. Vitamin waters also are good alternatives, but drinking water with a multivitamin costs less and will have the same effect.

· Flavored water - Most sugar-free, flavored waters are sweetened with sucralose (aka Splenda). Others might contain sugar alcohols, which can cause diarrhea.

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