Veggie sticks are considered health food, but really aren't

W hether it’s because of a nutritious-sounding name, a wholesome reputation, or packaging that conveys farm freshness, the “health halo” above many foods on supermarket shelves can mislead even the most nutrition-­savvy consumer.

Many foods that seem healthy fall short on nutrients—or contain more sugars, sodium, and calories than you’d expect. “Food packaging can be very confusing,” says Whitney Linsenmeyer, Ph.D., R.D., a nutrition and dietetics instructor at Saint Louis University. Instead, she says to check the nutrition facts label and the ingredients list to get an idea of what’s really in your food. To give you a head start, we have details on eight impostors and what to choose instead. 

Veggie Sticks

“I call these 'produce pretenders,' ” says Joan Salge Blake, Ed.D., R.D.N., a clinical associate professor of nutrition at Boston University. Made with potato flour and starch, oil, salt, and some vegetable powder for color, an ounce of Sensible Portions Garden Veggie Straws has 130 calories, 7 grams of fat, less than a gram of fiber, and 210 mg of sodium—not much better than potato chips.

“If you love the taste, treat them like any other salty snack and enjoy them in moderation,” Linsenmeyer says.

Better choice: Air-popped popcorn. It’s a whole grain, and a 4-cup serving has about 120 calories and 5 grams of fiber. Try sprinkling it with herbs instead of salt. 

Rice Cakes

Even though they’re made with whole-grain brown rice, they provide little fiber, which helps curb your appetite. And like other rice products, they may contain arsenic.

Plus, flavored varieties can pack in more calories and sugars than you’d expect. For instance, two Lundberg Family Farms Salted Caramel rice cakes have 6 grams of added sugars and 160 calories.

More On Healthy Foods

Better choice: A fiber-rich cracker such as GG Scandinavian Fiber Crispbread. Each cracker has 4 grams of fiber and 20 calories. Top with healthy foods, such as peanut butter and sliced ­banana, or hummus with sliced tomato and cucumber. The protein and fiber will make your snack satisfying. 

Spinach Wraps

Spinach wraps won’t help you increase your veggie ­intake, because the amount of spinach they contain is negligible. Certain brands even use food coloring along with a small amount of spinach powder to amp up that healthy-looking hue, Linsenmeyer says. And many spinach wraps are made with refined white flour and are therefore low in fiber.

Better choice: “You need whole grains in a wrap,” Salge Blake says. That will give you a healthy dose of fiber. For example, one Mission multi-grain wrap has 7 grams. Then stuff your wrap with as many veggies as you can. 

Protein Powder

Scour the shelves of most grocery stores and you’d think we have a serious protein deficiency in this country. But that’s not true. Even though older adults may need slightly more protein than younger ones, most Americans consume an adequate amount on a daily basis, Linsenmeyer says. It’s easy to get enough from food. Protein powders aren’t necessary, and they’re not without risk. Certain brands have been found to contain concerning levels of heavy metals and other toxins.

Better choice: Greek yogurt, silken tofu, tahini, or peanut butter can add a reasonable amount of protein to your smoothies and supply additional nutrients. 

Ground Turkey

A turkey burger isn’t always much better than a beef burger. Ground turkey can contain dark meat and skin, which add calories and fat. Butterball 85 percent lean ground turkey has 230 calories and 17 grams of fat (5 grams saturated) in 4 ounces. That amount of 85 percent lean ground beef has 243 calories and 17 grams of fat (6.5 grams saturated).

Better choice: Opt for a healthier type: 93 percent lean ground turkey, which has 9 grams of fat (2 grams saturated) in 4 ounces. Ground breast doesn’t have dark meat or skin. Butterball ground turkey breast has 2 grams of fat (0.5 gram saturated) in 4 ounces. 

Bran Muffins

The outer layer of a grain is known as the bran. It’s where much of the fiber is found. Bran muffins are another story. “If you get it in a bakery, it could be like a bran cupcake,” Salge Blake says. Most bran muffins are loaded with sugar. Some are also quite large. The raisin bran muffin at Au Bon Pain, for instance, weighs in at almost 5 ounces and packs 430 calories and 31 grams of sugars.

Better choice: A small bran muffin with a serving of ­yogurt and berries would make a more balanced breakfast. If you want the bran but not the added sugars, layer plain yogurt with fruit, such as berries and ­bananas, and a high-fiber ­cereal, such as Original All-Bran. 

Granola

Despite the mixture of oats, fruit, and nuts, many granolas have lots of calories and added sugars and fat—and even surprising ingredients, such as whey protein concentrate. A half-cup serving of Quaker Simply Granola Oats, Honey & Almonds has 200 calories and 10 grams of sugars. And you’re likely to eat more than that.

Better choice: Start with a base of high-fiber, low-sugar ­cereal—such as Shredded Wheat (79 calories and 0 grams of sugars per half-cup) or Cascadian Farm Hearty Morning Fiber (110 calories and 5 grams of sugars in a half-cup); garnish with granola. Or use just a sprinkle of granola to add some crunch and sweetness to plain yogurt. 

Instant Oatmeal

Rolled oats and other less processed types aren’t ­digested as quickly as instant oats, meaning they won’t cause the same rise in blood sugar. But that’s not the only reason you’re better off avoiding instant. Packets and cups tend to have far more sugars than you’d add to oatmeal yourself. A single-serve cup of Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Brown Sugar and Maple ­instant oatmeal has 9 grams (more than 2 teaspoons) of added sugars.

Better choice: Microwaving rolled oats takes just minutes. Or cook a batch of steel-cut oats in the evening to have for breakfast for the next few days. Microwave a serving, then add fruit, a little nut butter, and cinnamon or nutmeg. 

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the June 2019 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.