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The ‘healthy’ foods that are actually bad for you

healthy unhealthy foods
From green juices to flavoured yoghurts, these seemingly good-for-you foods aren't as healthy as you might think

Across the UK, supermarket milk aisles have become filled with an increasing array of plant-based alternatives. It began with oat, coconut, rice, and soy, but now almond, hazelnut, hemp and even pea milk are becoming increasingly trendy options. So much so that in the last two decades, the UK’s dairy milk consumption has dropped by 20 per cent.

But while these replacements are often branded as being healthier, is that really the case? Not always, according to a new study from the University of Minnesota, led by epidemiologist Abigail Johnson.

When Johnson and her colleagues analysed the nutritional labels of 237 milk alternatives made using either almonds, oats, rice, or soya, they found that just 19 per cent of them matched up to ordinary milk when it came to protein content. A third were found to be lower in calcium and vitamin D. Previous research has shown that plant-based milks are also lower in minerals such as magnesium, zinc and selenium.

“Some plant-based milks contain added sugars, which cow’s milk does not,” says Johnson. “We saw that some plant-based milks had added sugars in levels that were more similar to flavoured milk products like chocolate milk.”

So what other supposedly healthy foods should you avoid? And what should you replace them with?

Flavoured yoghurts

healthy unhealthy foods
Flavoured yoghurts are an ultra-processed food

Low-fat yoghurts may seem like a healthy sweet treat, especially when branded with highly tempting labels suggesting that they contain extra probiotics, but in reality, nutrition experts are highly sceptical.

“Many people eat flavoured yoghurts every day, and feed them to their children, thinking they are healthy without realising they are an ultra-processed food,” says Tim Spector, an epidemiologist from King’s College London and the co-founder of personalised nutrition app Zoe.

Spector describes common brands as sometimes containing three different sources of added free sugars – fruit juice concentrate, cane sugar and modified food starch – as well as the emulsifier carrageenan.

“This emulsifier has been implicated in increased gut inflammation,” he says. “The free sugars are problematic because of the increased risk in dental caries but also of Type 2 diabetes and obesity.”

Replace with: plain, natural yoghurt.

“Natural yoghurt is cheap to buy and is easily flavoured at home by adding fruit, nuts or honey,” says Spector.

Granola

healthy unhealthy foods
Supposedly 'healthier' granolas often contain an array of syrups and sugars

Registered nutritionist Clarissa Lenherr, who operates a practice in Harley Street, is particularly critical of granola products, which are sometimes branded as being healthy due to their fibre content and lack of refined sugars.

Lenherr feels this is often misleading, as a closer examination of the ingredients can reveal multiple forms of sugar such as syrups. While these are better than refined sugar, they can still cause spikes in blood sugar.

“A supposedly healthier granola can contain date syrup, maple syrup, coconut blossom syrup or coconut sugar,” she says. “That sugar content is going to affect your blood sugar levels and give you cravings later in the day.”

In addition, Lenherr feels that the actual fibre content within many granolas is often insufficient. “A typical 30 or 40 gram serving can have three or four grams of fibre, and we should be eating 30 grams of fibre per day,” she says. “So it’s giving you just 10 per cent of your fibre intake, which isn’t enough. At breakfast, we ideally want to be getting closer to a third of our daily fibre requirements.”

Replace with: Lenherr recommends looking for brands that contain a maximum of just one source of unrefined sugar and have closer to 10g of fibre.

“There’s a brand called Paleo Foods that is really high in fibre,” she says. “There’s another called Olara, which makes mueslis and other cereals with quite a lot of fibre and not too much sugar. Spoon also does low-sugar granola. So those products are a little better than the standard sugary granolas.”

Vegan meat

healthy unhealthy foods
Nutrition specialists have criticised plant-based meat alternatives for their lack of genuine nutritional value

Plant-based meats, often made using a blend of pea or soy proteins to create vegan-friendly burgers or sausages, have become increasingly popular in recent years. However, nutrition specialists have criticised them for their lack of genuine nutritional value.

“They’re really not very good for you,” says Richard Hoffman, a nutrition expert at the University of Hertfordshire. “Meat provides a lot of iron, zinc and things like that, and these are often added back to these meat alternatives. But it’s likely that none of the iron or zinc is actually absorbed by the body, because it’s bound up by something called phytic acid.”

Iron and zinc are required for maintaining the immune system, helping to make the body resistant to infection, as well as wound healing.

Hoffman says that there’s evidence that lysine, one of the main amino acids purported to be in plant-based meat, is destroyed during the production process. We need this amino acid in our diet as it is a critical building block of collagen, which is our bones and connective tissues like skin and cartilage. “These foods don’t have a complete range of amino acids like a normal meat would have,” he says. “And then there’s all the emulsifiers, which have been shown to harm the microbiome and cause inflammation in the gut.”

Replace with: Hoffman recommends that vegetarians opt for the individual constituents themselves, like pulses, lentils and peas, rather than going for a processed product.

Sports drinks

healthy unhealthy foods
Obesity, Type 2 diabetes and dental health are all concerns linked with highly sugary drinks

Many popular brands of sports drinks, such as Gatorade and Lucozade, are known for their electrolyte content, but they contain a surprisingly high amount of sugar. For example, a 500ml bottle of Gatorade Cool Blue contains 20g of sugar, while Lucozade Sport Orange has 3.5g of sugar per 100ml.

“High-sugar drinks obviously are a concern for dental health,” says David Rowlands, professor of nutrition at Massey University, New Zealand.

Regularly consuming highly sugary drinks can also increase long-term risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

Replace with: water.

While many sports drinks are isotonic, which means that they contain similar concentrations of fluid, sugars and salts to the blood, Rowland says they are less effective than water when it comes to hydration. This is because they are high in simple sugars, which are rapidly digested, resulting in a high concentration of sugars in the gut.

“The gut can only absorb so much sugar at a time,” he says. “So the body holds water back, which limits the amount of fluid getting into the bloodstream. Because of this, just drinking water is a better way of hydrating you.”

Instant soups

healthy unhealthy foods
Watch out for emulsifiers and other artificial chemicals

Another supposedly healthy food source that turns out to be bad for you is instant, packed, tinned or powdered soups.

“I find people are quite surprised by this,” says Spector. “They always have lots of added salt with little fibre left to benefit our gut microbes.”

As well as the salt, many of these soup products also contain emulsifiers and other artificial chemicals that are known to be bad for the gut, triggering inflammation.

Replace with: blend your own.

Spector says that soup can be whipped in a simple and cost-effective manner in your own kitchen by blending together fresh carrots, tomatoes and other vegetables. This will result in a meal that is much healthier and higher in fibre. “Soups are another example of a food that can be made cheaply at home with any scraps, frozen or canned vegetables and can then be stored frozen for a long period of time too,” he says.

Protein bars

healthy unhealthy foods
'We’re meant to eat real food, not this kind of plasticised junk', says nutritionist TC Callis

Many protein or snack bars on the market are what nutritionist TC Callis describes as classic examples of ultra-processed foods, often containing high amounts of sugar, flavourings, bulking agents and emulsifiers.

“There is often a remarkable amount of sugar in products that claim to be low-calorie or low-fat,” she says. “This stuff isn’t good for you; we’re meant to eat real food, not this kind of plasticised junk.”

If you’re not sure about the health value of a particular product, Callis says that a simple solution is just to glance at the ingredient list. “As a rule of thumb, if it’s got more than 10 ingredients, put it back on the shelf,” she says.

Replace with: bananas.

Callis says this is an excellent natural source of a quick energy boost. “They’ve got lots of good fibre in,” she says. “They’ve got lots of potassium and magnesium in, and it’s completely unprocessed.”

Green juice

healthy unhealthy foods
Aim for juices that are predominantly vegetable-based with a little bit of fruit for sweetness

Lenherr is also critical of many green juices sold within supermarkets, because the vegetable content is much lower than many consumers realise.

“Everyone thinks, ‘Oh, green juice is great, it’s gonna pack in loads of nutrients and vitamins,’” she says. “Some products add spirulina, which is a green powder, so they can call them green juices, but it’s a tiny amount of powder and the rest is mainly apple juice.”

She says that consuming a juice that is predominantly fruit-based will be high in fructose, spiking your blood sugar and then giving you an energy crash afterwards, which stimulates hunger. Instead, she says we should be aiming for juices that are predominantly vegetable-based with a little bit of fruit for sweetness.

Replace with: Ideally, try to go for a juice that specifically says it is unpasteurised or cold-pressed. Lenherr says that pasteurised juices have fewer nutrients within them because the production process involves heat, which destroys vitamin C and various other minerals.