Is Your Health Food Really Healthy?

By Rachel Johnson, Ph.D, M.P.H., R.D., May/June 2008

6 healthy-sounding foods that really aren’t.

My friend’s husband, Henry, recently bought a huge box of Yogos, confident that these “yogurty-covered, fruit-flavored bits” were a healthy choice for his kids.

“Not exactly,” his wife, a nutritionist, said when he presented her with the box. Sure, Yogos are 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 (just shy of an ounce) of the pea-sized candies supplies 90 calories, two-thirds of which come from sugars. In fact, Yogos contain very little yogurt or fruit. How did this smart man get fooled into thinking this was health food?

No doubt Henry was deceived by what Brian Wansink, Ph.D., executive director of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and an EatingWell Advisory Board member, 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 “McSubway” studies, reported last October in the Journal of Consumer Research, Wansink showed how we let our general impressions of foods 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 Subway’s “healthier than fast food” image was biasing customers’ calorie estimations. Today, his advice is, “Take your best estimate of how many calories you think the food contains, and double it!”

Don’t be fooled by health halos. Here are some of the worst offenders.

Energy Bars

Energy bars usually contain protein and fiber—nutrients that help you feel full—but also may be loaded with calories. That’s fine if you occasionally make one a meal, but most of us eat them as snacks. You might as well enjoy a Snickers, which at 280 calories is in the same range as many energy bars.

Lesson learned: If you need something to tide you over until dinner, look for a calorie-controlled bar with about 5 grams of protein (e.g., Balance 100-calorie bar, Promax 70-calorie bar).


Granola sounds healthy. But it’s often high in fat, sugar and calories. Don’t be fooled by a seemingly reasonable calorie count; portion sizes are usually a skimpy 1⁄4 or 1⁄2 cup. Low-fat versions often just swap sugar for fat and pack as many calories as regular versions.

Lesson learned: Read granola labels carefully and stick with recommended portion sizes (which are teeny), perhaps as a topping on fruit or yogurt.


“Salads trip up many of my clients,” says my friend Anne Daly, R.D., director of nutrition and diabetes education at the Springfield Diabetes & Endocrine Center in Springfield, Illinois. Most of us could use more vegetables—so what’s not to love? In a word, toppings. The pecans and Gorgonzola cheese on Panera Bread’s Fuji Apple Chicken Salad (580 calories, 30 grams fat, 7 grams saturated fat) propel it into double-cheeseburger territory. A McDonald’s double cheeseburger has 440 calories, 23 grams fat, 11 grams saturated fat.

Lesson learned: Before ordering a salad, check its nutrition information plus that of the dressing and all add-ons (often, they’re listed separately).



Smoothies may seem like a tasty way to help get your recommended fruit servings—but studies show that beverages are less filling per calorie than solid foods. And added sugars can make some the equivalent of drinking fruit pie filling: the smallest (16-ounce) serving of Jamba Juice’s Orange Dream Machine weighs in at 340 calories, with 69 grams of sugars that don’t all come from orange juice. You’re better off with fresh-squeezed juices; orange juice has 110 calories per cup.

Lesson learned: Some smoothies pack as many calories as a milkshake. Look for those made with whole fruit, low-fat yogurt and no added sugars.


Yogurt is a great way to meet your calcium needs, but not all are created equally. Some premium whole-milk yogurts can give you a hefty dose of saturated fat. Shop around: many low-fat versions of these products are every bit as creamy. Enjoy a fruit-flavored low-fat yogurt, but understand that the “fruit” is really jam (i.e., mostly sugar). Or opt for low-fat plain and stir in fresh fruit or other sweetener to suit your taste; you’ll probably use less. My favorite, a tablespoon of Vermont maple syrup (52 calories), provides all the sweetness I need.

Lesson learned: Although they are still good sources of calcium, some yogurts can be closer to dessert than to a healthy snack. Don’t let fat and added sugars spoil a good thing.

Sushi rolls

Sushi is big in my family. There is a wide variety of sushi rolls out there and in some the fried tidbits and mayonnaise can really tuck in the calories. The Southern Tsunami sushi bar company, which supplies sushi to supermarkets and restaurants, reports its 12-piece Dragon Roll (eel, crunchy cucumbers, avocado and “special eel sauce”) has ­almost 500 calories and 16 grams of fat (4 grams saturated).

Lesson learned: Signature sushi rolls often come with a creamy “special sauce”; you should ask what’s in it. Or just order something simple: for example, a 12-piece California roll (imitation crabmeat, avocado and cucumber) or a vegetarian roll with cucumbers, carrots and avocado supplies around 350 calories and 6 or 7 grams of fat, and most of it is the heart-healthy mono­unsaturated type.

Despite these precautions, 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 Henry, even if the Yogos package screams yogurt-­covered fruit, the ingredients list proves it’s still candy.

—Rachel Johnson, EatingWell’s senior nutrition advisor, is dean of the University of Vermont College of Agriculture & Life Sciences.