Five Top Health Food Imposters

Written By: Beth Ehrensberger, RD

Title: Registered Dietitian

Alumni: University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Last Updated on:

The selection for health food seems to be expanding just about everywhere you look. But when you take a closer gander, what seems to be healthy, in many cases, just can’t live up to the lofty label promises. Worst of all, many of the so-called “healthy foods” are highly processed and low in nutrients, making them far from healthy. Dietitian Gloria Tsang identified these as highly processed foods (HPF) in her book Go UnDiet. In fact, many are health food imposters!

Be a Label Spy: On the Lookout for Health Food Imposters

Processed Foods “Made with Whole Grain”

It is tempting to believe that boxed mac and cheese and frozen pizza could help you reach your whole grain goals. But the truth is, the fiber most of these processed foods contain is negligible. In the case of pizza, a “made with whole grain” processed version is certainly not as healthy as choosing to make your own pizza with healthy toppings and a whole wheat crust. For mac and cheese, try using whole wheat pasta in a quick and silky reduced fat cheese sauce you can whip up with a little milk, a tablespoon or two of flour, and a handful of grated reduced fat cheddar. Instead of reaching for foods that have flashy claims for whole grains, make your own version at home. You’ll not only have a much healthier version, but will skip the additives from processed foods, too.

Fat-Free Buttery Spray

Since foods that have less than half a gram of fat are legally able to boast that they are “fat free,” there’s a lot of room to make a big fat mistake. Take fat-free buttery sprays: The label states that one spray has no fat, but who stops there? It doesn’t take much to add up: For some brands, going over 12 squirts will tack on 1 gram of fat. While that’s not much, it’s more than you thought you were getting. Instead of lacquering your veggies with artificial flavor and color, why not (knowingly!) invest a few grams of fat into real heart-healthy fats like olive oil.

“All Natural” Products

Just because something claims to be “all natural” doesn’t mean it’s health food; in fact, some of the worst health food imposters are “all natural.” A quick trip down the grocery aisles can yield “all natural” fried chicken nuggets, vanilla ice cream, and potato chips. That’s because, according to the FDA, as long as a product does not contain synthetic or artificial ingredients, it can be called “natural.” So, to avoid the trickery of these health food imposters, skip the flashy claims on the front altogether, and flip the box to read up on the nutrition facts to make sure each product is a sound choice.  Finally, read the ingredient list to make sure it’s not brimming with a slew of additives.

Sugar-Free and Fat-Free Treats

Don’t let the call of “guiltless” cakes, cookies, and candies amped up with sugar substitutes draw you in. While it’s true that sugar- and fat- free foods do have fewer calories from sugar and fat, they can still pack plenty of waistline-expanding calories from other sources. Plus, if you’re looking to go “un-HPF,” these foods are definitely not going to help you reach your goals, since plenty of additives are dropped in to improve the taste and texture after taking out the fat and sugar. If you can’t stop your sweet tooth, go for a small serving of a sugar-sweetened treat. Usually, you’ll find that a small amount of the real thing is more satisfying. Plus, staying away from sugar-free treats will help you avoid the trap of overeating diet food under the false impression that the calories don’t add up.


If you’re in control of the blender, and you know what goes into your creation, a smoothie can be a healthy treat. But order a tall one in a smoothie shop or café, and what you’re getting is probably closer to a glorified milkshake. Ask the server what’s in your smoothie, and stick to healthy ingredients like nonfat yogurt, milk, and fruit. Additions like ice cream, syrups, and powers can take your smoothie from healthy treat to dessert-in-a-glass.

The Bottom Line

Health food imposters can easily take your diet from healthy to junky if you’re not paying close attention to the labels. Go “un-HPF” with minimally processed, whole food selections.


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