Surprising junk food in the dairy aisle

Don’t get faked out by unhealthy choices

Published: April 20, 2015 01:30 PM

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When you’re scanning the supermarket for healthy snacks, you probably stop at the dairy case. It’s loaded with nutritious-sounding smoothies, dips, cheese sticks, spreads, and all types and flavors of yogurt. At first glance, all of those options might sound like tasty ways to get more protein, calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and other nutrients into your diet.

So why not go for a berry-flavored smoothie instead of a glass of skim milk? Here’s why: Because many dairy foods are junked up with sugars, salt, and additives—and few come close to just plain milk when it comes to nutrition.

“With these industrialized products, we’ve gotten so far away from what these foods originally were,” says Michele Simon, a lawyer and the author of the report “Whitewashed: How Industry and Government Promote Dairy Junk Foods.”

On the plus side, dairy products will usually give you a bone-healthy calcium boost, though probably not as much as you think. The trick is to read nutrition labels to check for fat, sweeteners, and other additives, says Melissa Dierks, a dietitian nutritionist and an owner of Supermarket Savvy, a website that keeps track of food and beverage trends.

Of course, avoiding dessert-flavored yogurt with candy and cookie toppings is a no-brainer. But some dairy junk foods aren’t as obvious. We scouted the supermarket aisles to help you separate the good choices from the bad ones.

Drinkable yogurt/kefir

Many of those grab-and-go drinks have calcium and gut-friendly probiotic bacteria. But they can be just as bad as candy and soda when it comes to calorie and sugar levels, depending on the flavor and size you pick.

For example, a 7-ounce bottle of Dannon Drinks (mango) has 150 calories and 28 grams of sugar, the equivalent of 7 teaspoons—almost the amount in a 7.5-ounce can of Coke!

What to look for

Low-fat versions. And choose plain or vanilla over sugary fruit flavors, which can venture into candy territory nutritionally. A 10-ounce container of Stonyfield Organic Peach Smoothie packs 40 grams of sugars, almost as much as a full-sized 3 Musketeers bar. Also avoid added thickeners like starches and gums.

Junky choices

  • Dannon Drinks (any flavor)
  • Stonyfield Organic Smoothies

Smart choices

  • Evolve Kefir Probiotic Smoothie (plain)
  • Lifeway Original Kefir (plain)
  • Siggi’s Filmjölk Plain 

Squeezable yogurt

When you’re looking for a good-for-you nosh on the run, a squirtable yogurt that doesn’t even need a spoon may be tempting. But the small tubes—just 2 to 4 ounces—are often packed with sugars and fall short of nutrition recommendations for dairy. Most average just 8 to 10 percent of the daily value (DV) for calcium.

What to look for

Watch for sugars in any of their many guises (fruit-juice concentrates, fructose, cane sugar). Also, clean-label dairy foods don’t have loads of starches and other thickeners like carrageenan and gelatin.

Junky choices

  • Yoplait Go-Gurt Portable Lowfat Yogurt (any flavor)
  • Stonyfield Organic YoKids Squeezers

Smart choices

  • Siggi's Icelandic-style Yogurt Tubes (any flavor)

Greek yogurt dip

They’re an improvement over the fat-laden sour-cream variety, but don’t think you’re dipping into pure, healthy yogurt. Artificial flavorings and salty seasonings can drive up the sodium content. Plain Greek yogurt is almost sodium-free, but a 2-tablespoon serving of Heluva Good Greek Style Yogurt Dip French Onion has 180 milligrams—more than in a small serving of McDonald’s fries.

What to look for

Seek out products with the shortest ingredients lists and those that keep modified starches and salty seasonings to a minimum, particularly MSG, a flavor enhancer that triggers headaches and other symptoms in some people. And read labels; nutrition can vary significantly, even among different flavors of the same brand. For example, Sabra’s Cucumber Dill and Tzatziki Dips have just 95 milligrams of sodium per serving; Sabra’s Diced Onion Dip has 135 milligrams.

Junky choices

  • Heluva Good Greek Style Yogurt Dip (Herb Ranch and French Onion flavors)
  • Dannon Oikos Greek Yogurt Dips

Smart choices

  • Sabra Cucumber Dill and Tzatziki Greek Yogurt Dips

String cheese

The label for Frigo’s Cheese Heads boasts “More of what’s in milk!” Sargento’s website touts that “Cheese has protein.” Despite the claims, gobbling a cheese stick will never replace downing a glass of milk.

For one thing, the sodium is stratospheric; most products average 180 to 200 milligrams per stick, more than you’ll find in a 1-ounce bag of potato chips (170 milligrams). Even the reduced-sodium versions still average 100 to 120 milligrams apiece. A glass of skim milk will give you as much or more calcium and vitamin D with barely any fat or sodium.

What to look for

Go for low-fat or reduced-sodium versions, depending on what’s most important to you. No product offers both options—and less of one generally means more of the other. Products fortified with vitamin D and calcium are also a plus. Cheese is a relatively simple food, so almost all brands have simple ingredients lists.

Junky choices

  • Frigo Cheese Heads Light String Cheese
  • Organic Valley Stringles

Smart choices

  • Sargento Reduced Sodium Colby-Jack Cheese Snacks

Frozen yogurt

Despite its healthy-sounding reputation, the fat and calories in some frozen yogurt isn’t that much different from ice cream. For example, half-cup servings of Ben & Jerry’s Vanilla Greek Frozen Yogurt (210 calories, 14 grams of fat) and its superpremium vanilla ice cream (250 calories, 16 grams of fat) are very similar nutritionally.

What to look for

Try brands with live active cultures, which provide probiotic-bacteria benefits. Choosing Greek over regular will give you a little more protein. Watch for sugars, artificial sweeteners, and dyes. Plain and vanilla tend to be lowest in sugars. Gums and other texturizers are needed to keep the yogurt smooth; choose products with the fewest. Hood and Healthy Choice Greek frozen yogurts and Yoplait bars have a lot of thickeners.

Junky choices

Bar

  • Yoplait Original Low-Fat Frozen Yogurt Bars (peach or strawberry-banana flavor)

Containers

  • Hood Greek Frozen Yogurt (all flavors)
  • Healthy Choice Greek Frozen Yogurt
  • Ben & Jerry’s Greek Frozen Yogurt

Smart choices

Bars

  • Yasso Frozen Greek Yogurt Bars (vanilla bean or berry flavors)
  • Lifeway Frozen Kefir Bars (all flavors)

Containers

  • Lifeway Frozen Kefir Tart and Tangy Original (vanilla)
  • Yoplait Original Frozen Yogurt (vanilla)

Cottage cheese

Once synonymous with diet food, it remains an excellent way to get a cheese fix with fewer calories and fat. But like any cheese, it tends to be high in sodium and—unless you go for lower-fat versions—saturated fat. And a half-cup serving supplies only 8 to 10 percent of your daily value. Low-fat and fat-free types tend to have more additives like gums and thickeners, so read labels carefully.

What to look for

Try low-fat or fat-free plain varieties, and choose those with the least amount of added starches, gums, and other texturizing agents. If you can find them, go for “no salt added” or “reduced sodium” varieties. Taste and texture might not be as exciting, so jazz them up with your own fruit, herbs, or spices. Avoid vegetable flavorings, which provide negligible (dried) vegetables and even more sodium. Also skip fruit-flavored varieties, which amp up the sugar considerably without boosting real-fruit benefits like fiber or vitamin C.

Junky choices

  • Hood Cottage Cheese with Garden Vegetables or Peaches
  • Friendship 1% Low-Fat Cottage Cheese with Pineapple
  • Breakstone’s Cottage Doubles with Fruit Topping (all flavors)

Smart choices

  • Hood, Crowley, or Friendship no-salt-added low-fat cottage cheese

Dairy-case shockers

Dairy foods can pack an astounding amount of sugars and sodium, which is why it’s critical to read labels before you put anything in your shopping cart. Two of the worst examples we found:

The YoCrunch strawberry lowfat yogurt with granola (6 ounces), top, has 25 grams of sugar, more than in two fun-sized bags of Skittles candies.

The Frigo Cheese Heads light string cheese stick, bottom right, has just 50 calories, but 200 milligrams of sodium, more than in a 1-ounce bag of potato chips.

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the January 2015 issue of ShopSmart magazine.


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