We can all see why carrot sticks make for a healthier snack than candy bars. However, sometimes there are more subtle differences between two similar products — which means one food gets labeled as good for us, and the other gets tossed aside as the bad or unhealthy option.
When a food finds its way into the health food canon — often through clever, targeted marketing — it’s described as having a “health halo.” These foods are praised for being better for our bodies, but it’s not always clear exactly why. Examples of these foods include coconut oil, Greek yogurt, and sea salt.
We may reach for these products instinctively, without really knowing whether evidence backs up their superiority for health.
For your body — and your wallet — it’s worth finding out for sure. Are foods with a health halo really better for you, and are they worth paying extra for? Here’s the scoop on 10 common products that are often given high health status.
1. Sugar in the Raw
We all know we should cut back on added sugar. Is Sugar in the Raw any exception? Its name certainly makes it sound more natural than regular sugar, and its brown color and rough texture seems to indicate that it’s in an unadulterated state.
It’s true that Sugar in the Raw, a brand of turbinado sugar, is less processed than the traditional white variety. While white sugar undergoes a refining process to remove its natural molasses, turbinado sugar skips this step, retaining molasses and its darker color.
Still, despite less processing, Sugar in the Raw is no different than white sugar when it comes to nutrition. Both are made up of the molecule sucrose, a simple carbohydrate that contains four calories per gram. They also count as added sugar.
Eating too much sugar is associated with weight gain, heart disease, cavities, and other health problems. So, while you may prefer the taste or faster dissolvability of Sugar in the Raw, it should be used sparingly.
2. Coconut oil
A mainstay of the health food movement, coconut oil has been touted as a curative for a number of health conditions, from dry skin to stained teeth. But in 2017, the American Heart Association made waves with a report that found that coconut oil raises levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, a known factor in the development of heart disease. Coconut oil is still considered a saturated fat.
According to the American Heart Association, saturated fat intake should be limited to 5 percent to 6 percent of total calories.
So, is coconut oil a worthwhile addition to smoothies and stir-fries? “While small amounts of coconut oil may provide some benefit to HDL cholesterol levels, more research is needed to understand coconut oil’s role in a heart-healthy diet,” says Kris Sollid, RD, senior director of nutrition communications with the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation.
Basically, it doesn’t mean you can double down on the amount of coconut oil you use because it’s “better” for you. “If you enjoy the flavor of coconut oil, use it sparingly in place of butter or shortening, or paired with other cooking oils,” Sollid says.
3. Nut milks
Nut milks are often found in the health food section of your local grocery store and covered in clever branding, increasing their health halo status. Depending on how the brand is processed and fortified, nut milk may actually be healthy, since it often contains plenty of calcium, vitamin D, vitamin E, and even fiber — with very few carbs and calories.
However, it’s important to note that unless you have a food allergy or intolerance, it’s probably not necessary for your health to substitute nut milks for cow’s milk. Dairy milk offers a high protein content, and fermented dairy products, like kefir or yogurt, include some probiotics that benefit gut health.
Instead of choosing between cow’s milk and nut milks, it may be more helpful to think of them as two separate foods with different types of nutritional value. Depending on your nutritional needs, it may not be worth shelling out an extra $5 for the fancy almond milk when the regular cow’s milk will do.
It’s also important to be mindful of added sugar in many nut milks. It’s best to buy unsweetened nut milk, or if you want some flavor, opt for unsweetened vanilla milk.
4. Sea salt
Plain old table salt sounds pretty prosaic when compared to salt that came from the sea. But are there nutritional differences between the standard salt you can get for under $1 and more expensive sea salts?
The nutrient of highest concern for most people in salt is, of course, sodium. Sea salt, table salt, and other specialty salts like kosher or Himalayan pink salt all contain about 40 percent sodium. So, for health concerns like hypertension or kidney disease that require reduction of sodium intake, it really doesn’t matter which you choose.
It’s possible that sea salt may include higher amounts of other minerals like potassium, calcium, and magnesium, but these differences are probably minimal. So, whether you splurge on the fancy, pink-colored crystals or buy the regular old stuff, make sure to use salt sparingly — especially if you need to watch your sodium.
5. Cold-pressed juice
For a refreshing drink after your morning yoga or Pilates, cold-pressed juice is about as trendy as it gets.
This popular beverage is made using a hydraulic press to extract the maximum amount of liquid from fresh produce without using heat — hence the “cold” in its name. The idea goes that, without being exposed to heat or air, the juice retains all the nutrients from its original fruits and vegetables.
According to the IFIC, however, there’s currently no published research to support the claims that heat and air sap nutrients from fruits and veggies. And if cold-pressed juice seems appealing because of its limited processing, be aware that this isn’t always the case.
“A lot of the cold-pressed juice on the market has undergone an additional pasteurization processed known as
Not to mention, even the unpasteurized juices can contain harmful bacteria, so they’re unsafe for pregnant women. Quality ingredients are probably a better indicator of health than whether a juice was processed cold or hot. Be sure to read labels carefully.
6. Agave nectar
Agave nectar, harvested from the sap of the desert agave plant, has gained popularity for its low glycemic index (GI) — a number that measures how rapidly a food increases blood sugar.
Agave nectar is made primarily of fructose, which doesn’t raise blood sugar the same way as the glucose found in other sweeteners. Compared with a GI of 50 to 60 in maple syrup and honey, agave nectar’s GI of 20 looks quite impressive.
However, foods high in fructose can pose health problems over time. When used in the long term, they can contribute to insulin resistance and poor liver health, increase bad cholesterol, and lead to excess belly fat.
“Because of the higher fructose content, agave is sweeter than sugars like honey and maple syrup,” says Sollid. Due to the increased sweetness, you might end up using less agave nectar than maple syrup on your pancakes. “But nutritionally speaking, all sugars are similar. That’s why general dietary guidance is to limit intake of all sources of added sugars, rather than pinpointing any one in particular.”
7. Grass-fed beef
Grass-fed beef is known for its positive effects on the planet. Is it also better for your health? It appears so for a few reasons.
First, grass-fed beef tends to be leaner than beef that’s been conventionally raised, with less monounsaturated fat. And there’s a significant difference in other fats, too. “Grass-fed beef contains more omega-3s than grain-fed beef,” says Pike. These helpful fats have been linked to lower blood pressure, reduced inflammation, and better brain health.
Additionally, meat from cows fed a grass diet tends to have higher values of certain micronutrients and antioxidants. One
However, there’s one catch: Beef that’s labeled “grass-fed” comes from cows that may have only been fed grass at one point or receive supplemental grains. Only the beef labeled “grass-finished” comes from cows that have eaten nothing but grass for their entire lives. If you have any questions, just ask your butcher.
8. Wild-caught salmon
As with grass-fed beef, the decision to purchase wild-caught salmon often stems from environmental concerns. While choosing sustainable food is a noble cause, the question remains whether this type of fish actually boasts a superior nutrient profile.
Major nutrition differences have been identified between wild-caught salmon and farmed salmon. Salmon caught in the wild typically has fewer calories, less fat, more iron, and lower sodium. However, farmed salmon tends to have more omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. So, it really depends on your individual needs and preferences. If buying farmed salmon, make sure it’s from a reputable source that includes sustainable fishing practices.
To get to the truth about the salmon you buy, read labels on packaged fish. Or, if purchasing salmon from the seafood counter at the grocery store, don’t be afraid to ask questions about the fish’s source and nutritional value.
9. Greek yogurt
In general, yogurt has rightfully earned its health halo. Loaded with calcium and live and active cultures, it makes an excellent dietary choice — as long as it’s not packed with sugar and artificial flavors. Does going Greek provide added benefits? It depends.
Because of its unique processing, Greek yogurt contains more protein than conventional yogurt — up to twice as much in some brands. It’s also often significantly lower in carbs. If you’re concerned about managing your macronutrients to get more protein and fewer carbs, Greek yogurt may be a wise choice.
On the other hand, brands vary widely as to their content of calcium and vitamin D, and there’s no Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation over which yogurts can call themselves Greek. Read yogurt labels to determine which variety suits your health goals.
10. Gluten-free grains
These days, you might think gluten is a dirty word. The bad press around gluten and wildly popular gluten-free diet may have convinced consumers that this protein found in wheat, barley, and rye is inherently bad for your health.
The fact is, though, most of the population doesn’t need to steer clear of gluten. Only about 1 percent of the population has celiac disease, the autoimmune condition that requires fully eliminating gluten, and somewhere from
Unless you have a medical reason to avoid gluten, or have an intolerance, those pricey gluten-free breads, pastas, cookies, and other products are unnecessary — and may not be as nutritious as their gluten-containing counterparts.
Many gluten-free products are made with rice flour or potato starch, which contain less fiber, protein, iron, and magnesium than whole wheat flour. A
Additionally, to make up for the gluten that would normally give a pleasing chewiness to foods like pastries or bread, these products may contain added fat, sweeteners, or additives.
Consumption of whole grains has been
When it comes to spending your hard-earned grocery budget on healthy foods, knowledge is power. Determining whether a food has truly earned its health halo can help you decide when something is worth the extra cash for your health — and when it’s not.
Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a nutritionist, freelance health writer, and food blogger. She lives with her husband and three children in Mesa, Arizona. Find her sharing down-to-earth health and nutrition info and (mostly) healthy recipes at A Love Letter to Food.