Health foods are big business in the UK, where 97% of us say we try to eat healthily at least some of the time.
Almost a third of us (32%) hanker after the latest products said to have nutritional benefits, according to a Mintel survey – with over half (54%) looking for low sugar products, and a similar number looking for ones that are low fat (50%).
But how much do we really know about the “health” foods we’re buying?
Many of us are “fooled” into thinking certain foods are healthy thanks to the way they are marketed, claims diet expert Terri-Ann Nunns.
“I think the reason we’re often tricked is through clever packaging and us getting sucked in by the latest trends and fads. We’re conditioned to think that anything green, contains fruit or is ‘fat free’ is automatically healthy and that isn’t always the case,” explains Nunns.
Other times, it’s sugar-laden foods like fruit juice that catch us out – meaning we’re more likely to eat these foods in bulk with wild abandon, and less regard for controlling our portion sizes.
“More often than not, people get sucked in by the latest ‘superfoods’ or foods that claim to be low fat but are really full of sugar and it can be very confusing,” she explains.
Here are the not-so-healthy “health foods” you should be looking out for.
This icy treat has enjoyed a boom among health food fans in recent decades, with UK frozen yoghurt consumption tripling between 2011 and 2014. However, Nunns warns that “fro yo” it is not as healthy as we might think.
“Frozen yoghurt generally has about as much sugar as normal ice cream does, meaning it’s not quite living up to the idea that it’s healthy,” she says. Try filling up with Greek yoghurt instead, or making your own healthy ice cream by whizzing up milk, frozen bananas and vanilla extract in the blender.
We’ve been told all our lives that fruit is good for us, but this isn’t always the case when drinking it in juice form – which can often be high in sugar.
Not only is fruit juice damaging to your teeth and linked to weight gain – linked to its high amounts of sugar – it also lacks the fibre content of its whole fruit equivalent.
“Drinking fruit juice is nowhere near as beneficial as eating a piece of fruit due to the lack of fibre,” explains Nunns. “The fibre is what protects us against absorbing the sugar found in fruit, this isn’t present in juice so we retain the high sugar content.”
Can’t part with your morning OJ? While eating whole fruit is preferable, Nunns advises making homemade freshly-squeezed orange juice, which is tastier, cheaper and – as no sugar is added – healthier.
Much like fruit juice, dried fruit contains a higher sugar content compared to its whole, fresh fruit alternative – meaning it can trip you up nutritionally if you eat too much. For instance, just 30 grams (g) of raisins contains as many calories (100) as a much larger 80g serving of grapes.
“Dried fruit as a snack is of course a better alternative to say a chocolate bar or a bag of crisps and can also be a great way to increase your fibre intake.
“However, dried fruits are typically high in sugar and calories and therefore they really should only be eaten in moderation – a handful is definitely enough. If possible, try to opt for fresh fruit as the calorie content is much lower,” says Nunns.
While gluten-free foods are of course healthier for those with an intolerance for gluten, this is not the case for the vast majority who do not, stresses Nunn.
“Many people have chosen to remove gluten from their diets as a health benefit – but the reality of this is that there’s actually very little evidence that going gluten-free has a positive effect on weight loss.
“We’re often tricked into thinking that anything that is ‘fat free’ or ‘calorie free’ is healthy and that isn’t always the case, which is similar for gluten free foods.”
In actual fact, eating this way is likely worse for us, due to the absence of whole grains – an important fibre source – in gluten-free food. Given that, statistically, less than 10% of us eat enough fibre, this leaves us without an important part of our diets.
“In gluten free foods, the grains are often less nutritionally valuable and can lack the essential fibre, vitamins and minerals that normal whole grains contain,” adds Nunns.
Vegetables are healthier – so vegetable crisps must be too, right? Unfortunately not.
While this sort of logic is understandable, so-called vegetable crisps are not always what they seem, Nunns explains.
“Most brands use veggie powders, which give these crisps their colour that fools us into thinking that they are made with vegetables. Except, they are mainly made with potato starch and corn flour, then heavily salted and fried to give the same flavour and taste of a normal crisp.”
Try making your own instead, by thinly slicing and roasting roasting vegetables until crisps, Nunns advises.
While chickpeas – the base ingredient – in houmous are packed with protein, most shop-bought varieties are full of added salt. In fact, a recent study found these dips can often contain more salt per pot than four packet of crisps.
Try whizzing your own up in a blender from canned chickpeas, plus whatever seasoning you choose, such as lemon juice, tahini or garlic.
From “health foods” to healthier eating
As for the healthy foods you should be choosing? While there’s no magic formula, Nunns advises: “The best advice I can offer is to eat a balanced diet.”
“Find what is healthy and sustainable for you. It’s important to remember everything is okay in moderation, but just to take a bit more time and consideration when automatically assuming something is healthy,” she adds.