Top 10 Impostor Health Foods

You found it in your health food store or the natural food section of your supermarket. The commercials show athletes or health conscious people consuming it. But beware of these foods posing as health foods: they’re neither tasty nor healthful.

When I was in grad school in New York City, I decided I needed to start eating more “whole foods,” foods that were not overly processed with additives of questionable health value and stripped of their natural goodness. Conveniently across the street from my apartment was a store called “Whole Foods.” (Not the big corporation, but a local store.) Inside, I found a number of foods, which, although dried, or preserved in a can or prepared by the store, would fit this definition. But there were other products that didn’t seem like whole foods by any stretch of the imagination.

Unfamiliar with health food stores, I found myself staring at a shelf of powdered protein shakes and wondering what in heck they were doing in a store called “Whole Foods.” I picked one up to read the ingredients, and sure enough, it was neither whole, nor food, according to my definitions.

A man standing nearby interrupted my thoughts. “This stuff is the best. Try the strawberry flavor,” he said, hoisting a four-pound canister into his mini grocery cart.

A shake pretending to be healthy is much more offensive to me than a milkshake that makes no such health claims, one that plainly and honestly calls itself a treat. In fact, while laden with fat and sugar, at least a milkshake is usually made with actual milk and you can find one without artificial colors or flavors or preservatives. Not to mention the fact that a real milk shake actually tastes good. And that’s the whole point.

Why eat food that tastes bad and isn’t even good for you?

Powdered Protein Shakes
What exactly is in that powder? Highly processed protein, artificial colors and flavors, texturizers, sweeteners, and supplements of unproven health effects—either positive or negative. Even body builders don’t need all this protein. If you’re a vegetarian, add more beans and tofu to your diet. (If not, you already get plenty of protein through lean meat, fish, and dairy.) My rule of thumb: if it comes in a powder, you can pretty much assume it isn’t an actual food.
Fake Meat
Regular readers already know my stance on fake meat, but I couldn’t leave it out of this list.

Pictured: texturized soy protein, the first ingredient in most fake meat. Ask yourself, is this really a food I can feel good about? Other ingredients in veggie sausage include: sodium caseinate, cellulose gum, modified potato starch, autolyzed yeast extract, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, caramel color, guar gum, natural and artificial flavors from non-meat sources, gum arabic, maltodextrin, xanthan gum.

Suggestion: Either eat lean, real meat, humanely raised and slaughtered at a local farm or skip the meat entirely. Beans make a cheap, hearty addition of protein. Mushrooms add excellent flavor and texture. And there’s always tofu.

Wheat-Colored Bread
You know, the kind that perhaps even calls itself wheat bread, is brown or has brown flecks, and yet, the first ingredient is enriched wheat flour. In layperson’s terms, that’s white flour. The healthy kind, with the whole grains and without additives, is whole wheat flour or better, stone ground whole wheat flour.

Some companies use white flour and then add processed fiber back to it to increase “grams of dietary fiber”. Um, why not use flour that wasn’t stripped of its whole grains in the first place? Oh, the ironies of processed foods.

Good foods are already rich with nutrients; “enriched” is a clue that the food itself is of dubious value, or is perhaps not really a food at all.

Energy Beverages
Deep down you know that adding vitamins to a product doesn’t actually make it healthy. You know you get far more vitamins in your daily multi if you are worried and you also know that it’s better to get nutrients though food. But there it is in the health food section of some stores so that you can pretend your colored sugar water is good for you.
Sports Drinks
Filled with sugar, artificial color and flavor. After heavy exercise of at least an hour, we do in fact need to replace electrolytes, and a sports drink is one (sugary and artificial) way to consume them. Under other circumstances—most people’s workouts or jobs—the sports drink is just another sugary beverage.
Fake Cheese
Primarily made of oil. See my rant on fake cheese.

Suggestions: Eat real cheese (organic) in moderation or stick to dishes that don’t require cheese. Or pick a substitute that is a real food. Tofu makes a reasonable and healthy substitute for ricotta or soft cheeses. A slice of avocado or a good smear of hummus add flavor and texture to sandwiches or wraps.

Fake Butter
First of all, plecch. What else can ruin a good dish faster than the off-notes of fake butter? I, for one, can believe it’s not butter. Secondly, hydrogenated oils (trans fats) found in some of these spreads have been proven far worse than the cholesterol in butter.

Solutions: For cold dishes and at the table, use healthy and flavorful extra virgin olive oil; cook with canola oil and switch to peanut oil for high temperatures. Use real, organic butter, sparingly.

“Baked” Snacks
Sure, they’re not fried, sure they have somewhat less fat, and as a result they have fewer calories. They also contain all the artificial colors and flavors of the original and almost always some extra ingredients you’d never find in your own kitchen.

Suggestion: Instead of replacing unhealthy fried snacks with snacks that are really not healthy either, try whole grain pretzels or raw veggies with hummus.

Frozen Yogurt
Frozen yogurt does not contain the live yogurt cultures touted for our digestive health. Further, the frozen confection, which I ate steadily through college, is usually quite a bit higher in sugar than ice cream. (Except for the sugar-free kind, which is filled with artificial sweeteners.) It usually has somewhat less fat than ice cream (depending on the form and the additives).

Then there are the toppings. Sorry, but a candy bar crushed into little pieces is still a candy bar. I used to pretend that toppings didn’t count, but I was in college then and magical thinking and 20-year old metabolism rules applied.

Importantly, though I would’ve never acknowledged it in my fro-yo years, I have since come to accept that frozen yogurt is never as tasty as ice cream.

Solution: If you already consume dairy, why not eat real ice cream? In moderation, of course.

Energy Bars
All energy bars are not created equal, but most are not very healthy. How many ingredients are in your energy bar? Many contain corn syrup and a host of other sweeteners, various oils, substances to create texture, artificial colors and flavors, and preservatives.

Solutions: Bring along real food for snacks. Remember GORP? Good Old Raisins and Peanuts. In a pinch, there are bars containing simply dried fruits, spices, and nuts. Read the ingredients. If you don’t know what it is, you probably don’t want to eat it.

Photos of foodstuffs in this post are for illustration only and are free images from either Wikimedia Commons  or stock.xchng.


  1. Well, I think baked corn chips are OK. Not much in them. Sometimes I even bake them myself. Sports drinks are also good when suffering from the stomach flu.

  2. And I was always of the opinion that if it tasted good it was probably good for me…

    In the NY Times today they wrote that coconut oil (which was bad) is now good. Which means that Oreo Cookies are probably good for me now (or just the filling any way).

    Eggs were good, then they were bad and now I read that they are good again.

    I learned a long time ago that frozen yoghurt was bad and that Haagen Daz was good (very good).

    Happily stewed calves brains (which were good) are now (and hopefully for-ever-after) bad.

  3. A bit strange to endorse “canola oil,” a fake, rancid oil produced from a toxic substance.

  4. Snopes checked out this internet myth and found it false: At the bottom of the rumored health risks article, you’ll see the discussion of why canola is in fact a healthy alternative. If you are still uncomfortable with it, you could use coconut oil, though the jury is still out on its health effects.

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