It’s estimated that 61 percent of the calories Americans consume today come from unnatural, processed foods. And while some of that percentage consists of Doritos, Twinkies, Snickers bars, and other obviously unhealthy foods, Americans are also eating a lot of processed junk that's masquerading as health food.
Even if a food’s package says “natural,” a lack of federal labeling standards means that the seemingly good-for-you frozen dinner is likely anything but.
Here’s the truth: While packaged foods may offer convenience and sometimes lower prices, most also come with a serious downside — unnatural preservatives, refined oils, hidden sugars, and artificial flavors.
And it’s not just the prepared foods that you have to worry about. Cooking oils, sugar alternatives, and even a slice of turkey from your grocer’s deli are some of the biggest faux-health foods around.
With many Americans becoming more ingredient-conscious and pickier about the foods they purchase, manufacturers have responded by making bold, health-related claims about their products. But you can’t (always) believe the hype.
Here are seven common grocery store foods that are called “natural” but are far from it.
1. Low-Fat Dairy
Make no mistake about it, milk naturally has fat in it — and plenty of it, too. While filtering out fat from milk, cheese, and yogurt might drop the product’s final calorie count, it also means the fat must be replaced with other ingredients to boost the taste factor.
In most cases, those “other ingredients” are sugar and artificial sweeteners, colors, and flavors. As an example, popular yogurt brands contain added fructose (read: sugar), multiple artificial sweeteners (more sugar), modified corn starch, and various color extracts.
2. Vegetable Oils
It makes sense that oils would come from foods that are naturally high in fat, like olives, coconut, nuts, and avocados. What seems strange, however, is how often flowers, corn, beans, and other low-fat plants are now used to produce oil.
The existence of vegetable oils — including canola, safflower, sunflower, and soybean — is only possible through extensive processing using chemical solvents.
Even though these oils are already cheap to produce, costs are cut even further through the use of genetically modified products. To make matters worse, vegetable oils are usually rancid by the time they make it to store shelves.
3. Bottled Juice
Whether it’s orange, apple, cranberry, or tart cherry, many bottled juices only include a very small percentage of real juice. Other unnatural ingredients used to boost color, texture, shelf life, and taste include high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), modified corn starch, preservatives, and coloring agents (like yellow #4 in the case of orange juice).
Additionally, during the heat-manufacturing process, many of the juice’s naturally occurring antioxidants and vitamins are also destroyed.
4. Agave Nectar
Still think agave nectar is good for you because of its highly touted low-glycemic impact? While the agave plant itself may be natural, the complicated process used to make this sweet-tasting syrup is not even close.
During manufacturing, agave juice is stripped of all its nutritional value, rendering a product with equal or even more fructose than HFCS.
The effects of consuming a food with more fructose than what could ever be found in nature include more cravings for sweets, increased storage of fat in the liver, digestive upset, and weight gain.
5. Egg Replacers
Free-range eggs are one of nature’s most perfect foods, packed with omega-3s, vitamin E, and protein. And they contain only one ingredient: eggs.
But have you checked the label on any carton of egg replacer lately? While eggs (or egg whites) may be the first ingredient listed, it’s followed by a bunch of junk including “natural” flavors, preservatives, emulsifiers, and stabilizing chemicals.
Skip the boxed stuff and crack open some fresh, whole eggs instead — and don’t forget to eat the vitamin-packed yolk, too!
6. Cold Cuts
Considered a lunch-bag staple for most kids (and adults) eating the standard American diet, most cold cuts (also called deli or lunch meat) contain a whole host of unnatural ingredients.
Most deli meats come from sectioned and restructured cuts of meat that are bound together using non-meat additives, emulsions, fillers, and usually lots of sodium.
Unless specifically noted, cold cuts are also very likely to contain sodium nitrite, which helps prevent the growth of bacteria but, unfortunately, has also been associated with cancer. Whole cuts of meats or poultry that are cooked and then freshly sliced are much more natural.
7. Sprayable Butter and Oil
Does the idea of spraying chemicals on your food make you cringe? Well, if you’re reaching for cans of sprayable butter or oil when you cook, that’s exactly what you’re doing.
While promoted as all-natural, low-calorie, and portion-controlled, these convenient spray cans are also very likely to come packed with thickening agents, preservatives, and artificial flavorings.
Use the real thing instead, and if you must keep an eye on portion sizes, buy a misting spray can that you can add your own oil to.
In most cases, though, a little oil is nothing to fear, and healthy fats like coconut and olive oil can play an important role in a balanced diet.