Hey look over here, I am fat-free, all-natural, not to mention, vitamin-enriched! Its labels like these that guide us through the grocery store in making our food choices.

food choices

You may think that you are making a wise decision by purchasing these food items but these products that tout nutritional benefits are often anything but good for you. The food industry is given wide leeway to promote their products, so it’s up to us to ferret out the imposters.

That means reading nutrition labels to see what these products actually contain. Some of the worst offenders turn up in foods that you would least suspect. Those so-called health bars, for example, may contain protein and some vitamins and minerals, but they’re often loaded with salt and sugar as well.

Just because something is seasoned with sea salt, doesn’t mean it’s any healthier. Salt is salt, no matter what type and “It’s going to have the same amount of sodium as table salt,” says Denise Cole, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic, but “we need less of it to make our food taste better because it’s a coarser grind than table salt. So, just remember, we’re still getting the same amount of sodium, it’s just in a different form.”

The next time you reach for that low-fat peanut butter that you think is healthy, think again. Often, the healthy fat of the peanut is removed and replaced with added sugars to make up for the loss in flavor. That’s actually the case for many fat-free and low-fat products. Fat-free does NOT mean calorie-free. Just because a food contains no fat, that doesn’t make it a health food. (Think gummy bears.) Of course, there are many very healthful fat-free foods (like most fruits and vegetables), but always check the nutrition labels when buying packaged foods to be sure you’re getting a nutritious product and not just one that’s fat-free. Calories, sodium, fiber, and vitamins and minerals are all aspects you should consider in addition to fat.

Of course, you don’t always have nutrition labels to guide you to the healthiest choices at the market. And when you’re in the produce section, all those greens can be overwhelming. In that case, let color be your guide. The most nutritional foods are the ones with a lot of colors.

“Iceberg lettuce actually has very little nutritional value. It’s mostly water, so if you’re looking to get good vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, you want to look at darker, greener lettuces, like romaine and spinach and kale,” Cole says. “The darker … a lettuce, the more nutrition it has.”

Don’t assume that anything with the word “salad” in it must be healthy. Prepared tuna salads, chicken salads, and shrimp salads are often loaded with hidden fats and calories due to their high mayonnaise content. While a lot depends on portion size and ingredients, an over-stuffed tuna sandwich can contain as many as 700 calories and 40 grams of fat. If you’re ordering out, opt for prepared salads made with low-fat mayonnaise, and keep the portion to about the size of a deck of cards.

Here’s another tip: “Whole grain” and “multigrain” are not interchangeable terms. Whole grains are healthier because they contain all parts of the grain kernel. But multigrain simply means the food contains more than one type of grain.

When in doubt, just remember to read the type behind the hype.

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