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Health Food or Candy?

07/11/08 5:55PM By Rachel Johnson
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(HOST) Commentator Rachel Johnson is Professor of Nutrition at UVM and an advisor to Eating Well Magazine. Today, she warns us not to fall for healthy-sounding foods that really aren't.

(JOHNSON) The husband of a friend of mine came home recently from a big-box store with a huge carton of "yogurty-covered, fruit-flavored bits," confident that they were a healthy choice for his kids.

"Not exactly," his wife said when he presented her with the box. She's a nutritionist. Sure, this snack is fortified with 100 percent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C and some calcium. But the ingredient list begins with sugar and partially hydrogenated oils; and a small pouch of the pea-sized candies supplies 90 calories, two-thirds of which come from sugar. In fact, this snack contains very little yogurt or fruit. How did this smart man get fooled into thinking this was health food?

No doubt he was deceived by what Dr. Brian Wansink, Professor at Cornell University, calls the "health halo" effect. Words like "yogurt" and "fruit" positively glow with such halos, since we consider these foods healthy in their natural state.

In his famous "McSubway" studies, Wansink showed how we let our general impressions of a food mislead us. He asked people who had finished eating at McDonald's or Subway to estimate the calories in their meals, then compared their guesses to the actual counts. Participants estimated that a Subway meal contained 21 percent fewer calories than a McDonald's meal with the same calories. Wansink concluded that Subways' "healthier than fast food" image was biasing customers' calorie estimations.

Don't be fooled by health halos. Here's some of the worst offenders.

Granola sounds healthy but it's often high in fat, sugar and calories. Don't be deceived by a seemingly reasonable calorie count - portion sizes are usually a skimpy one-quarter to one-half cup. So read granola labels carefully, and stick to a small portion size, perhaps as a topping on fruit or yogurt.

Salads trip up a lot of us. Most of us could use more vegetables - so what's not to love? In a word, toppings. The cheese and nut add-ons can quickly propel the calories in a salad into double-cheeseburger territory.

Yogurt is a great way to meet your calcium needs, but not all yogurts are created equal. Some premium whole-milk yogurts give you a hefty dose of saturated fat and calories, similar to ice cream. Enjoy a fruit-flavored low-fat yogurt, but understand that the fruit is really jam and mostly sugar. Or opt for low-fat plain yogurt, and stir in some fresh fruit or other sweetener. My favorite, a tablespoon of Vermont maple syrup, provides all the sweetness I need.

I'm not trying to be a nutrition nanny. In truth, most of these foods can fit into a healthy diet, if you know your limits. But do a reality check and read labels first. After all, as my friend told her husband, even if the package label screams yogurt-covered fruit, the list of ingredients proves it's still candy.

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