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Updated 12 November 2015

Are you fooled into buying these 'healthy' foods?

Are the items on your shopping list as healthy as you think they are? A nutrition expert takes a look at items you probably shouldn't buy.

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With all they hype around eating healthily, consumers are popping "health bars", "health cereals" and the like in their shopping trolleys by the handful.

Peculiar responses

But what do they contain, and how healthy are these foods really? Could they be wolves in sheep's clothing? Some say the food industry’s "healthy foods" are only successful at one thing – making them lots of money.

Health24 asked 50 random Capetonians what they considered to be healthy foods.

Among the most common responses were "anything homemade or natural", "foods that cost more money", "labels that state it's organic or free range" and "anything organic or green". Some of the more peculiar responses included "when it says it's healthy on the label", or "if there are trees or plants on the packaging".

Passing off unhealthful foods as healthy is especially troubling at a time when 70% of adult women and 30% of men in South Africa are overweight, and 40% of adult women are obese.

Read: In-depth insight into the health of South Africans

We spoke to Mpho Tshukudu, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Association for Dietetics in South Africa, about some of the most common items in South Africans' trolleys – and she tells us why they aren't as good we think they are:

1. Ready-made salads

While green salads are healthy and a better lunchtime choice than fast foods, they aren't as good for you when they're drenched in cheap oil and salt.

Tshukudu advises that you stay away from salad dressings made from sunflower or palm oil and sugar (bear in mind that balsamic vinegar can also contain sugar), and rather use olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice with herbs, garlic and pepper to add flavour to your salad.

Similarly, a pasta salad may sound delicious, but along with pasta (which is high in carbohydrates), it will also typically contain cream, oil, mayonnaise, sugar and salt, pushing the calorie count sky high.

Read: The obese like both sugar and salt

2. Patties/mince

Because burger patties are easy to prepare they make their way to the dinner table in many South African homes, and although not all  batches of mincemeat are stuffed with fillers, preservatives and salt, Tshukudu points out that manufacturers often stretch the meat by adding flour, salty spices, potatoes and soya to the mince. This reduces meat content and adds carbohydrates, gluten and salt to the meat.

Again, she stresses the importance of reading the label to make sure that you're buying 100% meat such as beef, chicken, ostrich. She suggests that it's even better to grind your own mince.

"The best way to ensure that your patties are lean and devoid of additives or other ingredients that bulk them up, is to make your own patties from 100% pure mince. You can use herbs such as garlic and paprika to add flavour and reduce the salt content", she says.
 
3. Sandwich polony

Because it affordable and South Africa loves sandwiches, polony is one of the most popular meat items. The problem is that it is processed meat and high in unhealthy trans-fats, sugar and salt, which may increase your risk of stroke, heart disease and high blood pressure.

Processed meats have been linked to increased risk of cancers, diabetes and heart disease, and a recent study showed that eating too much processed meat much can shave years off your life.

Instead of polony, Tshukudu recommends cheese, peanut butter, eggs and fish as sandwich fillings. "Offals are also affordable and much healthier than processed meats," she says. 

4. High fibre energy snack bars

You think they're convenient and a good meal replacement – especially if you don't have time to eat breakfast – but most snack bars are made from cereals like puffed rice or corn flakes that have a high GI (glycaemic index – the measure of how quickly carbohydrates are digested and absorbed).

Plus, they're often mixed with low quality ingredients, fats as well as sugars, which means they're very high in carbohydrates and calories.

Some that proclaim to be gluten-, wheat- and dairy-free are actually really high in sugar. The World Health Organisation's latest recommended limit is 25g or six teaspoons of sugar a day.

Raw nuts and fruit make for a better snack, the dietitian suggests. Here are some more tips to lower the GI of common foods.

Check your food with the Glycaemic index tool

5. Trail mix

Although trail mix is generally good for you because it contains raw nuts and seeds that have great health benefits, it can be very high in calories if it contains sugary fruit pieces.

What makes trail mix a tricky snack option is the portion size. Most people eat too much of it due to the fact that a serving of trail mix is not necessarily as filling as apples for example – two of which would have the same calorie count as a portion of trail mix.

This means that the weight conscious folk may actually end up gaining weight if they don't get their portion of trail mix right.

Tshukudu recommends 40g as a snack serving size and says that the fruit quantity should be less than the raw nuts and that the fruit should not be sugar coated.

6. Microwave popcorn

Although popcorn contains more of the "good for you" antioxidants called polyphenols than some fruits or vegetables, the microwave variety is not good for you.

Besides the fact that it's high in salt and unhealthy fats, a study showed that the ingredient used to impart the flavour and aroma of butter in microwave popcorn, is a respiratory hazard that can also alter gene expression in the brain.

According to TV doctor Dr Oz, PFOA, a chemical that lines the bag that the microwave popcorn comes in, can cause high cholesterol, bladder cancer and thyroid issues.

Rather make popcorn the traditional way and use herbs to add flavour, suggests Tshukudu.

7. Any kind of fried chips, even the vegetable chips

We know that potato chips are high in carbohydrates and unhealthy fats, but that doesn't mean that the sweet potato or beetroot variants are any better – they are also fried in vegetable oil at high temperatures, which changes the oil into unhealthy trans-fats, linked to an increased risk of heart disease.

Raw nuts or home-made popcorn are better snack alternatives.

8. Iced tea/energy drinks

Shoppers often avoid sweet fizzy cold drinks because they're perceived to be unhealthy and they want to avoid the gas, but this is just half the story. In a recent investigation we found that many of South Africa's most sugary drinks are fizz-free, and iced tea is on the list of drinks with the highest sugar content.

A can of 340 ml ice tea has 7 teaspoons of sugar and a 500 ml energy drink has between 8 and 9 teaspoons of sugar. This is a lot for one serving, even when running a marathon, and especially considering that you should not have more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day.

Sugar has a high glycaemic index (as we said, it's absorbed quickly into the bloodstream). The sugar that is not used for energy is turned into fat, and if that fat is deposited around your belly, research shows that you're at an increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease.  

Tshukudu suggests making iced tea using natural herbal teas and reminds us that the best drink to have is water. "You can add cucumber, mint, lemon and orange slices to plain water to make it more interesting to drink."

Read: 7 proven benefits of drinking lemon water

9. Spice mixes

Condiments are probably the best disguised unhealthy items because they're not fried and are made from herbs and spices, right? Well not exactly. Spice mixes often are loaded with more preservatives than actual natural flavouring ingredients.

Although some of them are good for you – cinnamon, for example, helps with blood sugar control, while turmeric reduces inflammation. Spice mixes such as the barbeque and chicken spice mixes often contain soya, flour, salt, breadcrumbs, colourants and preservatives, which you really don't need.

Tshukudu says that reading the label to make sure it is just a combination of spices with no added salt and preservatives, is the most important step when shopping for spices. Remember that pure herbs add flavour as well as other nutritional compounds and you can easily grow and dry your own.
 
10. Cook-in sauce

Just like spice mixes, cook-in sauces, often used to make gravy or pasta dishes, have many added extras and worryingly high salt levels. These sauces can also contain unhealthy vegetable oils, which may not be correctly identified, as well as added sugar, preservatives and colourants.

Making your own is not only healthier but easy as well. Tshukudu says you can use onion, tomato, spices, herbs and peppers, cooked together and bottled in a sterilized jar where it will keep for a couple of weeks.

Read more:

SA snack tax urged to fight obesity

10 healthy alternatives to the ‘bad’ foods we love

Train your brain to choose fruit salad over fries

The state of South Africans' health

 
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