Our last two blogs have been all about foods that we think of as healthy, but are really designed to pull the wool over our health-conscious eyes.  From yogurt and granola to packaged turkey, we’ve hit every meal and food category–with the exception of fresh foods, of course.  Take a close look and you’ll notice that all of these foods are pre-packaged; and with a little attention to the details of ingredients lists and nutritional labels, you’ll learn a lot.  Namely, stick to whole, fresh foods.  Without further ado, we conclude our list of junk foods masquerading as health foods.

1.  Chewable Vitamin C:  How many of you pop these into your mouth regularly during cold and flu season or give them to your kids who can’t yet swallow pills?  Lots of you, we’re sure.  The problem with most of these chewable vitamin C supplements is that they can lead to severe dental erosion.  Apparently, vitamin C contains a compound called ascorbic acid that’s more acidic than sugar. To be safe, look for “buffered” vitamin C which is pH-neutral.  They may not send your taste buds into orbit, but at least you’ll still be able to chew, right?

2.  Veggie Burgers:  Know your brand, read your labels; all veggie burgers are not created equal.  When you’re eating your veggie burgers out, ask what they’re made of, if the menu doesn’t tell you.  You may be getting some great legumes, veggies and whole grains, but make sure.  Pre-packaged veggie burgers, while having only between 70 and 130 calories per burger, are a smart choice calorie-wise, but read the fine print.  They’re often high in sodium and contain preservatives.  Also, a recent study found that the soy used in many veggie burgers and other products is made with hexane, a by-product of gasoline.  Not good for you, not good for the planet.  Your best bet in avoiding hexane in pre-packaged veggie burgers–look for a label saying, “made with organic soy.”  Otherwise, mix those veggie burgers up at home and load them with nutrition!

3.  Packaged foods labeled “organic,” “low fat,” “gluten free,” etc.:  But it’s organic, you say; what could be bad about it?  A toaster pastry is a toaster pastry, folks, even if it’s made from organic ingredients.  Most of them are fairly equivalent to their Kellogg counterparts in terms of calories and fat, but the Kellogg brand often has less carbs and less sugar.  So, how much better are the organic toaster pastries than a regular Pop Tart?  Not so much.  The same is true for organic cake mixes, canned pastas and other packaged foods.  Let’s call a spade a spade.  These foods may contain organic ingredients, but they also contain just as much sugar, sodium, etc. as other packaged foods.  They just have the privilege of using the word “organic” to make you feel better about it.

The same can be said about gluten-free and fat free foods.  What manufactures sacrifice in gluten and fat, they make up for in the lab.  Food scientists spend lots of time making sure these products look, feel and taste like their traditional counterparts, but they do it with all sorts of additives that you’d probably rather not know about.

So, what’s a health-conscious consumer to do?  Frequent restaurants that use whole, fresh ingredients (like Brown Bag) when you go out and avoid processed and packaged foods as much as possible.  It’s not as hard as you think, once you get used to it.  Prepare larger amounts than you might usually, and package them for the week.  Do meal prep on weekends to make week-night meals more convenient; and when you must eat processed foods, read the labels carefully for ingredients and nutrition information.  Health doesn’t usually come neatly packaged in plastic, but beautifully colorful from the garden or farmer’s market, where you can purchase locally-raised organic meats and cheeses, and artisan breads made from whole, fresh ingredients (like our friends at make Lyon Bakery, our favorite supplier of fresh breads).

Won’t you join us on the health side?  Put down that protein bar and sidle up to the counter with your brown bag all filled out to make your favorite sandwich or salad!  You know you want to–and you know you’ll be eating what you intended to eat.:)