The experts give the low-down on products we may think are good for us but which they say we should avoid
We’re bombarded with foods and drinks which claim to boost our wellbeing and trim our waistlines. But behind the hype, it seems some of the things we consume may not be the healthy choices we’re led to believe.
We speak to nutritionists Kim Pearson (kim-pearson.com) and Kate Knowler (the-london-nutritionist.co.uk) to find out which foods it’s better to avoid.
This syrup has become popular in recent years because it has a lower glycaemic index (GI) – the figure which indicates the food’s effect on your blood-sugar levels – than regular sugar.
But, Kim explains, that doesn’t mean it’s good for you. ‘Agave syrup is certainly not as healthy as it’s made out to be,’ she says. ‘It’s high in fructose, excess consumption of which has been shown to lead to insulin resistance, weight gain and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.’
Shop-bought green juices
Green juices are extremely fashionable, and many celebrities swear by them.However, the delicious, freshly made concoctions packed with vegetables such as spinach, kale and cucumber we see the A-listers sipping are a far cry from the versions we see on our supermarket shelves.
‘Green vegetable juices certainly do have health benefits, but the moment you add any fruit, the cons outweigh the pros,’ says Kim. ‘Most shop-bought green juices are primarily fruit juice- based and relatively high in sugar – removing the fibre from the fruit only speeds up the rate at which it’s absorbed into the bloodstream.
‘Freshly made or homemade green-veg-only juices are a much better option.’
If you have to skip breakfast, grabbing a cereal-based bar can seem like a great way to eat on the go, but you may be shocked to discover the amount of sugar they contain.
‘Many of the leading brands have between two and three teaspoons of sugar in each pack – and the recommended intake of sugar for adults is just seven teaspoons per day,’ says Kate. ‘Forgo the processed bars and eat a banana and a handful of raw, unsalted nuts instead.’
Crisps made from all manner of vegetables including beetroot, sweet potato and parsnip are now commonplace, but they’re not necessarily a healthier choice than traditional potato crisps.
Kim says: ‘Many people think that, because they have vegetables in them, they’re a more nutritious alternative to regular crisps but that’s not the case – they’re still deep fried. Kale crisps are a great alternative as they’re baked.’
Big-brand wholemeal bread
Picking up a wholemeal loaf instead of a white one when you’re doing the weekly shop might make you feel like you’re making a positive choice for your body, however many people don’t realise they can be packed with nasty additives.
‘Most supermarket-bought, sliced wholemeal bread is highly processed,’ says Kim.
‘The average loaf contains preservatives, emulsifiers, flour- treatment agents, hydrogenated fats, added sugar – many more ingredients than the essential flour, yeast, salt and water.
‘Instead, opt for an organic wholemeal loaf, and check the label to make sure wholemeal flour hasn’t been blended with white. Or, why not make your own from organic spelt flour such as Doves Farm.’
Fat-free salad dressing
We all know that calories can quickly add up once you start drizzling a dressing over your salad, particularly creamy ones such as Caesar, so when you see a lower-fat option it’s tempting to choose it.
But, Kim warns, ‘Any processed food labelled ‘low fat’ or ‘fat free’ should set alarm bells ringing. Low-fat foods such as salad dressings have to create flavour and texture in other ways, which often means using thickeners and sugar. Good- quality olive oil has a wide range of health benefits and makes a perfect alternative.’
If you’re looking for a lower-fat alternative to meat or you’re a veggie, then tofu may be an appealing option. However, Kate says, ‘Tofu is made from soya milk, which is made from refined extracts of soya beans.
Soya itself is categorised as an ‘endocrine disruptor’, because it can interfere with normal oestrogen hormone balance and may inhibit the production of thyroid hormones – essential for energy, metabolism and weight management.’
Instead, use chickpeas or other legumes, which are full of nutrients and make a great meat alternative in curries and stews.
Giving a sugary fizzy drink a miss and swapping it for a diet version sounds like a good choice, as they’re promoted as sugar-free and therefore better for our health – but unfortunately they can have some undesirable side effects.
‘Recent research is showing that the non-nutritive sweeteners used, such as aspartame, are associated with a change in gut bacteria which could lead to bloating and other IBS symptoms,’ says Kate. ‘The best alternative to a sugary soft drink is water – still or sparkling.’
Often chosen as a ‘safe’ food to snack on by those trying to lose weight, rice cakes may be low in calories but they aren’t quite the diet wonder food that we might think they are.
Kate says, ‘Eaten on their own, their high GI of between 80 and 90 – pure glucose has a GI of 100 – means that they will put your blood-sugar levels on a rollercoaster, and cause havoc with your waistline.
‘A healthier option is oat cakes, which have a GI of around 55, combined with a little protein such as chicken or houmous, to fill you up and stabilise those blood sugars.’
Many people are cutting out cow’s milk and turning to dairy-free alternatives, such as those made with almonds or oats, in the belief that they are beneficial to our bodies.
But act with caution, says Kate.
‘Some brands use an ingredient called carrageenan as a stabiliser, which has been linked to bacterial imbalance in the gut, leading to IBS symptoms. Some brands also use sugar to sweeten their milks.’
But, if you still want to ditch dairy, or you’re intolerant, don’t despair – some brands, such as Rude Health, don’t use any additives, just make sure you check the ingredients carefully.
And five health foods they would…
‘If you’ve ever craved chocolate when stressed, then here’s some good news: dark chocolate is rich in cocoa, a superfood which is packed with nutrients known to boost your mood,’ says Kate.
‘Many high-smoke-point oils, eg, sunflower oil, are heavily refined, so I recommend coconut oil, which has a moderate smoke point. There are exceptions: avocado oil
is healthy with a high smoke point, but it’s best to cook on a moderate heat,’ says Kim.
‘Green tea is a source of antioxidants, which combat free radical damage, protecting against premature ageing and certain diseases,’ says Kim. ‘Also L-theanine, which it contains, has been shown to play a role in reducing stress.’
‘Full-fat live yogurt – the kind made from cow’s milk with added live bacteria – has digestive benefits and is also high in protein, which makes it a deliciously satisfying breakfast option,’ says Kate.
‘These tiny seeds are packed with huge amounts of omega 3, which means they’re great for anyone with inflammatory issues, such as arthritis and eczema, and may support cardiovascular health,’ says Kate.