Trick or Treat: Junk Food in Disguise

Many Americans are interested in better health, and food marketing executives know this. Americans also want great taste, which means plenty of sweetness and mouth-pleasing fat. The food marketers found a clever way to satisfy both impulses and sell a ton of their products. Make like Halloween, and dress up the junk food! And it worked. In 2015 a food marketers’ trade group estimated the opportunity for health food sales—foods marketed as health foods, whether they are actually healthy or not—at $161 billion. It's high time we will pull back the mask of many foods marketed to consumers as healthy options, and recognize them for what they truly are: just plain junk.

Now with lots of sugar!
Many food companies have taken once-healthy foods and added plenty of sugar for a taste that is more desirable to consumers. They know that you associate foods like granola and yogurt with good health. And you should, because the original versions of these foods were healthy choices.

But times have changed. One cup of typical fruit-flavored yogurt now includes as much as 47 grams of sugar. Similarly, granola and granola bars—whether store-bought or made from a recipe written in the last 25 years—are loaded with sugar comparable to most desserts, between 20 and 30 grams per serving. As a comparison, chocolate cake has 26 grams. In both these cases, the beneficial ingredients in these foods (the active cultures in yogurt and whole grains in granola) cannot redeem the overuse of sugar.

New and improved with chemical ingredients!
Chemical food additives are not new. Margarine, which has a type of fat called transfat, was actually invented in the 1800s as a response to the need for a cheaper butter substitute for the French Army. It wasn't until Americans started to gain weight in the 1980s that margarine was relied on to lower calories in American diets.

Transfats were a great way for food scientists to give consumers the taste of fat, without the added calories. Now transfats are found in lots of foods all over the grocery story. While artificial ingredients do lower the calories and fat found in the original versions of these foods, they also have a number of undesirable side effects even worse than the “unhealthy” versions they were designed to replace. For instance, transfat raises LDL ("bad") cholesterol and lowers HDL ("good") cholesterol. This combination increases the risk of heart disease, which is the leading killer of both men and women.

For the extreme athlete in you!
Some foods—like sports drinks and energy bars—were originally designed for athletes. When food marketers realized that they could market these foods to everyone, they saw dollar signs. According to a market research company, the global sports and energy drinks market is expected to reach $52 billion this year.

If you are an athlete and are exercising more than 1.5 – 2 hours, a sports drink can be used to replace electrolytes and calories burned during extended bouts of exercise. However, because few people exercise for that long, few people really need the extra calories and hydration power packed into these drinks. It is far better to drink naturally calorie-free water.

Vegan, gluten-free, and organic!
You often hear of health-conscious people adopting diets that exclude certain types of foods. As a response, stores have added products labeled as vegan, gluten-free, and organic. While some of these foods might be healthy, not all of them are. Some foods marked with seemingly healthier labels are just as junky as their conventional counterparts.

But there is good news. Our government has regulated the food industry in a way that requires food production companies to print their products’ ingredients and nutritional facts on the label. All you have to do is read it. Look for ingredient lists that are short; five items or fewer is ideal. Ingredients are listed in order of amount from greatest to least, so look for lists that include a whole grain first. Labels will soon include a line for added sugar, as opposed to naturally occurring sugar like lactose, the sugar found in milk. Look for items with sugar amounts in the single digits or less. Of course, if the ingredient list is full of things that you don’t recognize or that are hard to pronounce, put it right back on the shelf.

Michael Pollan, a journalist famous for writing insightful books about food and health, says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” and, “If it’s a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.” It is good advice that will keep you safe from foods that look healthy but aren’t.

Rachel Rodney, MS, RD, CDE, is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Southwestern Vermont Health Care. For more information, contact “Health Matters” is a column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care. For more columns like this one, visit