Healthy eating begins at the supermarket, but is the health food aisle the healthiest of all? Not necessarily, says dietitian Caitlin Reid.
The number of food products promoting health has grown substantially over the past decade, so it’s no surprise that the health food aisle is now a regular feature in supermarkets. But as public interest in health and nutrition grows, so do the number of foods being promoted as healthy – even when they’re not. In fact, many products in the health food aisle aren’t necessarily any healthier than those items found in the ‘regular’ supermarket aisles.
Nut bars, apricot bites, vegie chips, sesame snaps and yoghurt-topped bars are just some of the ‘healthy’ snacks found in the health food aisle. Some can be good options since they might be high in fibre or low in fat. Sesame snaps – which are a great treat – now come in unhealthy ‘king sized’ portions, while apricot bites contain more sugar than processed breakfast cereals. Similarly, nut bars, while high in healthy fats, contain the same amount of kilojoules as a small meal, while corn chips and vegie chips often contain excessive amounts of sodium – just like regular chips. If you really want a healthy snack, look for options containing less than 600kJ per serve, with the lowest amount of salt possible and minimal amounts of added sugar and fat.
Most products in the health food aisle feature some form of nutrition claim, brightly splashed across the front of pack. But don’t be swayed – they often only provide you with one piece of the nutritional puzzle. It’s rare for manufacturers to sacrifice taste in a bid to achieve a healthier product, so a product that’s claiming to be low in one ingredient, such as sugar, will often have larger amounts of fat or salt added to maintain the flavour. Sugar-free lollies, for example, can have as many kilojoules as regular lollies! Look for what the label doesn’t tell you by investigating the ingredients list and nutrition information panel.
'Free from' foods
The range of gluten-free, dairy-free, wheat-free and lactose-free foods is continually expanding. These ‘free from’ foods started out as simple solutions for people with food intolerances and allergies. However, in today’s ‘wellness-conscious’ society, ‘free from’ foods are now fashionable.
While ‘free from’ foods serve as a convenient replacement for people with intolerances and allergies, this doesn’t mean they have a better nutritional profile than regular foods. If you compare a gluten-free double chocolate biscuit to a regular double chocolate biscuit, they’re nutritionally very similar. So don’t feel justified in consuming twice as much, just because ‘gluten-free’ sounds healthier! Read the food labels and limit unnecessary kilojoule consumption.
Be wary of the names
A number of marketing techniques and creative wording can be cleverly used to promote foods as being healthier than they really are. For example, many brand names of products conjure up images of health, with their names featuring words such as ‘wholesome’, ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘nature’ and ‘freshly harvested’. In fact, some products that include the word ‘organic’ in their brand name actually contain few, if any, organic ingredients in their product at all. Often these foods don’t present with the healthiest of nutrition profiles but marketing can lead us to believe they’re better options than products in other supermarket aisles.
Another example of creative marketing occurs when food manufacturers display pictures of fruit on the product’s packaging, giving the impression of health. However, they could just be using fruit juice concentrate to soak and flavour the other ingredients – adding kilojoules and sugar, but very few health benefits. Be a savvy consumer and avoid the traps when grocery shopping.
Don’t trust the claims, trust the nutrition panel
While there are some great products in the health food aisle, it’s important to realise that marketing plays a large role in promoting the health or ‘key features’ of a product. Reading the food label will help you determine which foods have the best nutritional profile, irrespective of whether they are sold in the health food aisle or another aisle. Healthy eating is about balance – combining everyday whole foods with your favourite ‘occasional’ foods makes eating not only healthy, but also enjoyable.