If it says it’s organic, gluten-free, vegan, kale-infused, protein-rich and goji-laced, it’s got to be good for you, right?
Not so fast.
These buzzwords line grocery store shelves these days, and, yes, some of these products are good for you. But some are less so, says Cheryl Harris, an Alexandria-based dietitian.
Take Annie’s Homegrown Berry Patch Organic Bunny Fruit Snacks, which are popular among the toddler set. They are vegan, gluten-free and fat-free, and contain 100 percent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C per serving.
That’s a lot of good stuff right there, no?
Except when you look at the list of ingredients, there are three types of sugars listed first — and no berries.
Let’s compare them with real berries: A serving of strawberries (147 grams) also maxes out your daily vitamin C, but it has a bit of fiber (about 3 grams) and less sugar (7 grams vs. 10). The calorie count is lower, too, at 47, vs. 70 for the gummies.
But, then again, the strawberries are also much larger than gummies, which come in a 23-gram bag. The 147 grams of strawberries (about a cup) are going to be much more filling. (If you were to eat 138 grams worth of gummies — six bags — that would mean 420 calories and 60 grams of sugar.)
And this is true for a lot of processed foods: Even if they are organic, allergy-free and all the other good stuff, they often lack fiber and water, which means there is less bulk and volume to fill us up, Harris says.
Consequently, it’s easier to overeat.
“This is why I think the question — whether you are eating gummies or kale chips — needs to be, what are you replacing?” Harris says.
In other words, if you are replacing a candy bar with gummies, then you are moving in the right direction. But if you are replacing an apple with gummies, “that’s not as good a bet,” Harris says.
Natosha Prolago, a client of Harris’s who has a 3-year-old son, says she thinks of gummies as candy or treats.
“Gummies and fruit juice are in the same category. There is little or no nutritional value. They are just treats,” Prolago says.
Kale juice, though packed with vitamins, can have as many calories as a soft drink. Take Bolthouse Farms Daily Greens, for example, which contains, among other things, kale, spinach and cucumbers. It has 90 calories for 8 ounces (one serving) and about 19 grams of sugar, a bunch of vitamins and potassium. Pretty good.
Bbut again, what are you replacing? If you are replacing a soda, then you are light-years ahead (though a Coke is roughly the same on calories), but if you are replacing water and a serving of kale salad, then maybe not so much.
In the end, eating foods that are whole is the way to go, says Ebeth Johnson, a plant-based nutritionist, natural foods chef and owner of Breastfeeding Chef, a business that counsels pregnant and nursing women on nutrition.
“Whether we’re talking about superfoods or regular foods, they are all their most super when consumed in the form as close to nature as possible without added sugars and refined fats,” Johnson says.
But if we do go for the packaged foods, we need to look carefully at labels, because all healthful-sounding products are not created equal.
For example, Brad’s Raw Crunchy Kale Chips are only lightly processed and loaded with vitamins (122 percent of your daily vitamin C) while Sensible Portions Garden Veggie Straws have about the same amount of calories (130 per serving) but no significant nutritional value in terms of vitamins.
“It is important, as with any packaged food, to read ingredients carefully. Look for whole food ingredients that are not puffed, isolated, concentrated, hydrolyzed, crystalized,” Johnson says. “Make sure added sugars are not within the first two or three ingredients.”
Except, says Harris, decoding a nutrition label can be tricky.
Take Cascadian Farm Organic Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Granola Bars. There are at least seven different sugars included, and yet sugar is not listed as a top ingredient. “But if you combined all the sugar it might be the first ingredient,” Harris says.
So, even when we are looking at the list of ingredients, we have to read between the lines.
Harris concedes, though, that prepared foods are a part of modern life, whether we like it or not. She just hopes that whether we’re eating kale chips or fruit gummies, the processed foods will help us develop a taste for the real thing. “If you get a taste for kale chips, maybe eventually you might segue into eating kale salad?” Harris says.
Boston is a fitness trainer and freelance writer. She can be found at www.gabriellaboston.com.