"One quickly became three," my client confessed several years ago about those silly 100-calorie snack packs. "My health halo kicked in, I reasoned they were only 100 calories each, and … Well, then I took a look at the amount of sugar and had serious regrets."
Like my client, most of us learned that lesson the hard way. Today, we know agave isn't the healthy sweetener it pretends to be, fat-free cookies taste like cardboard but somehow inspire us to eat the whole package and eating one 100-calorie pack can become a gateway to three or four.
Manufacturers know we've become savvy to these and other high-sugar foods disguised as low fat, high fiber, moderate calorie or another such marketing ploy. Aware that consumers closely read labels and know sugar's numerous disguises, they spend a lot of money to convince us unhealthy foods are somehow good for us.
The seven foods and drinks here can be healthy, but manufacturers usurp that healthiness with dubious bulking agents, food intolerances and sugar, sugar, sugar! Let's look at seven common health food impostors and how to make them legitimately healthy.
With fresh berries and maybe even a scoop of protein, what's not to love about smoothies? A massive sugar load, that's what. One 16-ounce smoothie at a popular chain packs an astounding 12 teaspoons of sugar, only a teaspoon less than a 16-ounce, full-fat ice cream milkshake.
Smart alternative: Make your own fruit smoothie with non-soy, non-dairy powder, raspberries, kale and freshly ground flaxseeds, blended with unsweetened coconut or almond milk. You'll get a satisfying low-sugar shake with protein, healthy fats, fiber, nutrients and antioxidants.
As more studies show artificial sweeteners are more damaging than sugar, many natural alternatives have appeared on grocery shelves. My favorites include monk fruit, erythritol and yes, stevia. Just make sure to read the ingredient list. Many commercial stevia packets contain the dextrose (aka sugar) as a first ingredient. They also sometimes have maltodextrin (corn) and nebulous natural flavors.
Smart alternative: Look for 100% pure stevia, monk fruit or erythritol, or a blend of these natural sweeteners with no dextrose, maltodextrin, natural flavors or other iffy ingredients.
3. Green "juices"
Ever had straight-up vegetable juice? It tastes pretty awful. Knowing they often prove wince-worthy, manufacturers load bottled juices with fruit, jacking up their sugar content. One popular "green juice" — actually mostly fruit — contains almost 12 teaspoons of sugar in a 15.2-ounce bottle.
Smart alternative: Make your own or order a fresh-pressed juice with mostly green vegetables and a little lemon to provide major flavor without the sugar.
4. Balsamic vinaigrette
Creamy dressings frequently contain sugar, preservatives and even trans fat, so many people gravitate to balsamic as a healthier option. Unfortunately, manufacturers make most commercial balsamic vinaigrettes with white wine vinegar, caramel coloring and thickeners like cornstarch, ramping up the calories and sugar.
Smart alternative: Opt for extra-virgin olive oil and vinegar with your salad instead of a dressing that's pre-bottled.
5. Protein bars
Convenience comes at a cost. Most commercial protein bars are nothing more than candy bars with a few nutrients thrown in, soy protein, gluten, preservatives and other nasty additives. Low-sugar protein bars usually contain just-as-bad artificial sweeteners or high amounts of sugar alcohols that can wreak havoc on your stomach.
Smart alternative: Look for a protein bar with as few ingredients as possible, five grams or less of sugar and no gluten, dairy or other food intolerances. Better yet, make your own.
6. Protein shakes.
Studies show a high protein breakfast keeps you full and focused all morning, so why am I bashing them here? Because most powders come loaded with sugar, artificial sweeteners, soy and other ingredients that provide a longer shelf life while shortening yours.
Smart alternative: Look for a non-dairy, non-soy protein powder with five grams or less of sugar per serving.
Because it has a tart taste, manufacturers liven up plain yogurt with fruit, honey and other flavor boosters that also seriously increase its sugar content. One tiny cup of fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt can contain as much sugar as a candy bar.
Smart alternative: If you're not dairy-intolerant, no-sugar-added plain Greek yogurt provides protein, healthy fat and gut-boosting probiotics. Stir in frozen raspberries for fiber, antioxidants and added nutrients.
We all have that "healthy" food we discovered came loaded with sugar or otherwise was unhealthy. I love almond butter, but once I started reading labels I learned some brands contain added sugar. What one food did you learn wasn't so good for your waistline or your health?