The answer, of course, is NO. In the words of a recent article from the Journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association, "There is no such thing as healthy ultra-processed foods. By their very nature they are unhealthy... [and] may well accelerate the deterioration of public goods and public health." Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma, suggested in this New York Times Magazine article to "avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims... [and] especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number-- or that contain high-fructose corn syrup."
Let's look at some of these "healthy" products now.
Kellogg's Smorz cereal claims to be a "good source of Vitamin D." Unless you're eating this product in the sun, I don't know how they can possibly advertise this. Here's the ingredient list:
CORN FLOUR, MARSHMALLOW BITS (SUGAR, CORN SYRUP, MODIFIED CORN STARCH, DEXTROSE, GELATIN, ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, SODIUM HEXAMETAPHOSPHATE, RED #40, YELLOW,#5, YELLOW #6, BLUE #1), SUGAR, CHOCOLATEY COATING (SUGAR, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN OIL, NONFAT MILK, COCOA PROCESSED WITH ALKALI, MONO- AND DIGLYCERIDES, SOY LECITHIN, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR), WHOLE OAT FLOUR, FRUCTOSE, WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR, WHEAT FLOUR, HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, PALM OIL, SALT, CARAMEL COLOR, COLOR ADDED, ASCORBIC ACID (VITAMIN C), NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, NIACINAMIDE, REDUCED IRON, ZINC OXIDE, PYRIDOXINE HYDROCHLORIDE (VITAMIN B6), BHT (PRESERVATIVE), RIBOFLAVIN (VITAMIN B2), THIAMIN HYDROCHLORIDE (VITAMIN B1), VITAMIN A PALMITATE, FOLIC ACID, VITAMIN D, VITAMIN B12.
How that is healthy is beyond me (more than five ingredients, contains HFCS, has ingredients I've never heard of and can't pronounce)... yet I'm sure parents will buy it for their kids because of the huge claim on the top of the box.
Kellogg's Nutri-Grain Cereal Bars (Cherry) claims that it's "a good source of fiber," has "more of the whole grains your body needs," and is "made with real fruit." Huh. First of all, your body doesn't need whole grains; if it did, I would've been dead a year and a half ago. In the words of Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint, "there is absolutely no reason to eat grains." (Click here for the article.) Second of all, I didn't know "real fruit" is made with a million ingredients. Check it out:
WHOLE GRAIN OATS, ENRICHED FLOUR (WHEAT FLOUR, NIACIN, REDUCED IRON, THIAMIN MONONITRATE [VITAMIN B1], RIBOFLAVIN [VITAMIN B2], FOLIC ACID), WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR, SOYBEAN OIL (WITH TBHQ AND CITRIC ACID FOR FRESHNESS), HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, SOLUBLE CORN FIBER, SUGAR, CALCIUM CARBONATE, WHEY, WHEAT BRAN, SALT, CELLULOSE, POTASSIUM BICARBONATE, PROPYLENE GLYCOL, MONO- AND DIGLYCERIDES, SOY LECITHIN, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, WHEAT GLUTEN, CORNSTARCH, NIACINAMIDE, VITAMIN A PALMITATE, CARRAGEENAN, ZINC OXIDE, REDUCED IRON, GUAR GUM, PYRIDOXINE HYDROCHLORIDE (VITAMIN B6), THIAMIN HYDROCHLORIDE (VITAMIN B1), RIBOFLAVIN (VITAMIN B2), FOLIC ACID. FILLING: HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, CORN SYRUP, CHERRY PUREE CONCENTRATE, GLYCERIN, SUGAR, WATER, SODIUM ALGINATE, MODIFIED CORN STARCH, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, MALIC ACID, CITRIC ACID, METHYLCELLULOSE, DICALCIUM PHOSPHATE, CARAMEL COLOR, RED #40.
Oh yes, this product is soooooo healthy. I didn't know "real fruit" had high-fructose corn syrup. I guess I learn something new every day! (Kellogg's FiberPlus Antioxidant Bars have similar ingredient lists-- but OMG, they have antioxidants! Must be healthy!)
Speaking of cherry-flavored things and antioxidants, the most ridiculous "healthy" product is Diet Cherry 7Up Antioxidant which is "a delicious way to cherry pick your antioxidant" "without the calories of the original." There are so many things wrong with this-- just because something is diet, 0 carb, 0 calorie, and has "antioxidants" does not make it okay to drink. Ever.
Filtered carbonated water and contains 2% or less of each of the following: citric acid, natural flavors, potassium benzoate (protects flavor), aspartame, potassium citrate, acesulfame potassium, vitamin E acetate, Red 40.
In fact, studies have shown that aspartame (Nutrasweet) and acesulfame-K (Sunnette), the artificial sweeteners used in diet soda, contain many toxins and cause many health problems including cancer, seizures, tumors, and neuropsychotic disorders (source). According to Primal Body, Primal Mind, they "can increase insulin and leptin levels in people who consume them and thus contribute to obesity." In fact, another popular artificial sweetener used in "diet" products, sucralose (Splenda), "originally started out in an attempt to create an insecticide." Why put that in your body!? No matter what supposed antioxidants a product has, read the ingredients and run far, far away if it has any of these artificial sweeteners... or if it's a soda in general. Check out this awesome infographic on the harmful effects of soda: Harmful Soft Drinks.
My favorite claim is "naturally flavored." General Mills's Oats & Chocolate Chewy Fiber Bar, for example, has this one (along with the "35% daily value of fiber" one too). I guess only in the modern, ultra-processed foods world does this ingredients list mean "naturally flavored":
Chicory Root Extract, Semisweet Chocolate Chips (sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, natural flavor), Whole Grain Oats, High Maltose Corn Syrup, Rice Flour, Barley Flakes, Sugar, Canola Oil, Glycerin, Maltodextrin, Honey, Tricalcium Phosphate, Palm Kernal Oil, Soy Lecithin, Salt, Nonfat Milk, Fructose, Malt Extract, Cocoa Processed with Alkali, Baking Soda, Caramel Color, Natural Flavor. Mixed Tocopherols Added to Retain Freshness.
Don't you just love chemicals as part of a balanced meal?
I know a lot of us count carbs, but be wary of low-carb bars, shakes, and food products. They may be low in carbs, sure, but that doesn't make them healthy-- the same way slapping any of the aforementioned health claims make those products healthy. Let's take Atkins Advantage bars, for example-- they're only 2 or 3 net carbs and claim to be "great" or "smart" nutrition... but they contain a million and a half ingredients and artificial sweeteners. I used to live on them in my Atkins days, but I feel so much better now that I avoid that fake stuff.
What I'm trying to get across here is eat real food. Have you ever looked at an ingredient list on a head of lettuce, an apple, or a piece of chicken? No? Well, I haven't either, and you know why? Because real foods don't have ingredient lists.... and they certainly don't make health claims either. While I understand the convenience of these ultra-processed "foods," take the extra few minutes and make your own crunch bars or breakfast bars.
Your health will thank you.
Quote of the Day:
"Eat food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. So try this: Don't eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food." -Michael Pollan