“Natural”, “organic”, “gluten free”, “No trans fats”, “sugar free”, and “fat free” are some of the labels you are seeing because Americans have started seeking healthier food choices.

“Natural”, “organic”, “gluten free”, “No trans fats”, “sugar free”, and “fat free” are some of the labels you are seeing because Americans have started seeking healthier food choices.  The food industries hire full time geniuses to concoct foods, labels, and flavors that you will think are nutritious, even though they are anything but healthy. 

            Among the most ridiculous food that claims to be healthy is “fat free” peanut butter.  In fact, peanuts contain fat; that is what peanut butter is all about.  The fat contained in peanut butter is monounsaturated fat and is rather like olive oil and is beneficial.  There is no need to remove it from peanut butter.  When they remove the fat, they add more sugar which causes inflammation in your body and contributes to diseases of all kinds.   Read the ingredient list in very small print.  If there are more than two ingredients, peanuts and salt, then it loses its status as a healthful food.  An even better choice is freshly ground almond butter, cashew butter, or other kinds of healthier nuts.  Of course, if you eat a half jar of any of it, you will get too many calories.

            Energy bars, protein bars—who does not want more energy and what appealing labels!  They were originally developed as a convenient source of fuel during a long workout for athletes.  Now they have become an on-the-go snack for everyone.  Often filled with inflammation producing high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and artery-clogging trans fats they have evolved into health imposters.  If you can’t resist these energy bars, look for one that has no more than 200 calories and 20 grams of sugar which comes from dried fruit, not added sugars.

            Trail mix was once a healthful snack containing only nuts and unsweetened dried fruits.  However, today it may be one of the unhealthiest snacks out there.  Pre-packaged and processed trail mixes are usually high in fat and sugar.  The dried fruit may be drenched in sugar and many contain add-ins like chocolate chips and even M&M’s.  You may be fooled by yogurt-covered fruit and nuts which are actually sugar coated.  Be sure you know what is in the trail mix you buy or better still, make your own by using raw nuts and unsweetened dried fruit.  Nuts, diced cheddar cheese, and raisins make a delicious snack that is quick to put together.

            Smoothies are popular not but all smoothies are not created equal.  You are better off eating an apple, banana, or an orange than pre-made or store-bought smoothies which can rack up more calories than a cheeseburger.  When you are talking about smoothies containing ingredients such as sugar from fruit juice, and  ice cream you are talking about a calorie bomb.  Many of the commercial mixes contain sugar and other unhealthy ingredients.  Better to make your own using real greens, fruits and vegetables.

Yogurt has a nice healthy sound but whether it is frozen or unfrozen it may be as unhealthy as anything you eat.  Watch the advertising! “Yogurt improves digestion by providing probiotics” is often the come-on for yogurt.  Most yogurt is laden with sugared fruit and often contains high fructose corn syrup.  You have to read the small print if you are to get real yogurt.  Some yogurts contain absolutely no beneficial bacteria but they do contain cheap fillers.  Some contains very small amounts—just enough to put on the label.  The sugared fruit counteracts any benefits you might derive from it.  Buy only plain yogurt in which the small print lists only cultured milk and live bacteria cultures.  You can add your own fresh pineapple or other unsweetened fruit, it you don’t like it plain.  Plain yogurt with a little cinnamon and a small amount of raw honey or a drop or two of liquid stevia makes a good snack.  To obtain a substantial amount of beneficial bacteria, you can easily make your own yogurt.

              There are hundreds of “health” drink options on the market today, containing vitamins, probiotics and even fiber. But how do they truly stack up when it comes to meaningful weight loss and health?  If they have more than 1 to 2 ingredients, it is best to skip them. That’s because any drink with various ingredients is likely to have either added calories in the form of simple sugars, and if it’s sweet but has no calories, it has artificial sweeteners, which aren't great for your waistline, or your health.. Recent studies are linking artificial sweeteners with vascular events and diabetes. When it comes to drinks, think simple – water, is best and you learn to like it just like any other drink.

            Frozen diet entrees may be low in calories but they are often low in nutrients.  Refined flour and additives make these quick meals no nutritional value.

            Large pictures and words on labels mean nothing.  Look for the ingredient listing which may be so small you need a magnifying glass to read and hidden under a flap.  Take as good care of your body as your car; it has to take you further.  

(Janice Norris lives in Heber Springs, has a B.S. in home economics from Murray State University, owned and operated health food stores in Illinois and Heber Springs, and wrote a weekly column in Illinois for 15 years. She can be reached at janicenorris34@yahoo.com)