10 Health Foods You May Want to Rethink

These controversial foods prove reading nutrition labels may not be enough.

woman eating pop corn out of polka dot bag

While a whole grain, popcorn can be a sodium bomb.

If one of your goals is making your health a priority, bravo to you. To start your healthy eating meal plan off right, you’ll want to hit the produce section so you can load up on fruits and vegetables. But before you head to the other aisles to restock your pantry, you may want to reconsider a handful of traditional health foods that may have negative effects on your body. As it turns out, some aren't as good for you as they may appear. For others, claims that they can be dangerous are far overblown. It’s important to separate fact from fiction.

Fish, for example, is often a healthy pick, but you may have heard that certain production methods are problematic. The same holds for packaged foods including cereal bars and microwave popcorn, which may contain unhealthy additives.

Reading labels is key when it comes to choosing nutritious foods, sure, but not all labels tell the full story. Ready to grab a cart and shop smart? Here are 10 health foods that warrant a closer look before you purchase them.


Flavored Yogurt That’s Packed With Sugar

blueberry yogurt upclose

Yogurt is high on shopping lists because it often contains?probiotics, which are good bacteria. These microorganisms?combat bad bacteria?in your gut and can help promote good health in the digestive tract.

Why You Should Exercise Caution?That said, buying yogurt without these live active cultures or picking a brand with too much added sugar won’t do you any favors.

“Some yogurts are like candy in a container,” says Bonnie?Taub-Dix, a registered dietitian nutritionist in New York City and author of?Read It Before You Eat It. “It’s important to check the labels to see how much sugar you’re really getting in that little cup."

Bottom Line Your best pick is plain Greek yogurt, which is packed with protein and has less sugar than other yogurt types. “A single serving of Greek yogurt has almost twice as much protein as the regular kind, which is important if you’re watching what you eat, as it’ll help keep you fuller longer,” says Taub-Dix. When choosing unflavored varieties, you have the chance to add your own toppings, such as fresh fruit and raw nuts. Greek-style yogurt can grace your plate at any point during the day — it’s that versatile. “It’s the perfect combination of good taste, convenience, and healthy ingredients,” she adds.

RELATED: 7 Foods With More Sugar Than You Think


Farm-Raised Salmon That May Have Been Treated With Antibiotics

salmon up close

For a healthy heart, the?American Heart Association (AHA)?recommends eating two 3-ounce servings of fatty fish, which can include salmon, per week. This type of fish is rich in?omega-3 fatty acids, which are associated with?heart disease?protection, notes the?National Institutes of Health.

Why You Should Exercise Caution?Farmed salmon, however, has gotten a lot of flak over time because it’s primarily farmed in open net pens. These fish are vulnerable to infection from disease and parasites, so to help prevent those exposures, they’re sometimes treated with high levels of antibiotics and?pesticides. Antibiotics in fish can increase the risk of creating?antibiotic resistance?in humans. This is especially true of farmed salmon from Chile, which is routinely imported to the United States, according to Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. It rates two-thirds of farmed salmon from Chile as a fish to avoid eating. (The nonprofit has partnered with the salmon industry in Chile to bring down antibiotic use by at least 50 percent by 2025.)

That’s not the only possible cause for concern, as some fish can also be a source of mercury, which can harm your nervous system and be particularly dangerous for a developing fetus, says the?Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Because the potential benefits outweigh the risks, the EPA recommends that women and children eat two servings of fish per week, as it is an excellent?source of protein, omega-3s,?vitamin D, iron, and other important minerals. (This is in line with the AHA’s suggestions.) What’s key is choosing the right type of fish.

Bottom Line?You can include fish in your diet — and it’s healthful to do so — just be mindful of your choices, says?Stella Volpe, PhD, RDN, professor and department head of human nutrition, foods, and exercise at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The?EPA suggests?buying fish based on mercury levels, adding that the best choices are low in mercury, and — guess what — that includes salmon.

What’s more, what’s healthy for the planet is good for you, too. To make an environmentally sound choice, you can check the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch National Pocket Guide for responsibly farmed and fished options. Ultimately, eating a variety of seafood will deliver a variety of nutrients while reducing your risk of overconsuming a certain contaminant.

You might also remove the visible fat and skin when you eat farmed fish, as that’s where contaminants are more likely to accumulate. Preparation matters, too. Be sure to bake or sauté rather than deep-fry, Dr. Volpe suggests.

RELATED: A Detailed Guide to Following a Pescatarian Diet


Egg Substitutes With Chemical Additives

egg substitute

Eggs?are one of the best?sources of protein?and contain many other beneficial nutrients,” says Taub-Dix. One large egg contains 6 grams (g) of protein, per the?U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and just 72 calories. Egg yolks are also a rich source of choline, a nutrient that plays an important role in producing certain neurotransmitters that support memory, mood, and other brain functions, notes the?National Institutes of Health.

Why You Should Exercise Caution?How the egg you’re eating has been prepared matters. Specifically, many people choose packaged egg substitutes instead of whole, unprocessed eggs in an effort to help lower their cholesterol. In the past, guidelines limited the amount of dietary cholesterol one should eat, points out the AHA. One egg would provide more than half of this recommendation for cholesterol, and eggs were villainized. Instead, egg substitute products boast that they’re made up of mostly egg whites, but after manufacturers remove the yolks, many add back in the vitamins and minerals found in the yolk of an egg — with other things like natural flavoring, spices, and stabilizers like guar gum.

Bottom Line?Whole eggs aren’t as bad for you as you might think, and the true culprit for added cholesterol is probably the bacon and butter on your plate alongside them, says Taub-Dix. The?AHA points to research that one egg per day (or seven per week) is actually linked to a lower risk of heart disease, and even up to a dozen per week might be healthful.

Still, people who are at risk for heart disease or who have diabetes should talk to their doctor about where eggs may fit in their diet. Otherwise, “unless your doctor or registered dietitian advises against eating eggs or suggests you only eat the whites, there’s no reason to avoid the yolk,” says Volpe. If you’re concerned about cholesterol, you can combine the yolk of one egg with egg whites, she says. You can buy cartons containing only egg whites, like the one from Target’s Good & Gather line.


Microwave Popcorn That’s Loaded With Sodium


Popcorn has a pretty neat secret: It’s actually a whole grain, points out the Oldways Whole Grains Council. A cup of popcorn supplies 0.5 g of fiber, 1 g of protein, and about 80 calories, says the USDA, making it a healthy snack.

Why You Should Exercise Caution?Many microwaveable popcorn bags are coated with perfluorochemicals (PFCs)?to prevent oil from soaking through the bag, according to research, which other studies suggest may be linked to an?increased risk for certain cancers.

Bottom Line While PFCs are a concern, there’s a bigger problem in your bowl, says Taub-Dix. “Honestly, the biggest issue with microwave popcorn is the high sodium and saturated fat?content,” she says. Avoid microwave popcorn altogether and instead buy organic kernels?you can pop on the stove. Try a silicone popcorn maker, like Salbree (Amazon). All you need to do is pour in popcorn kernels and put it in your microwave for easy air-popped popcorn without any oil. Then add spices or a touch of salt to flavor on your own.

RELATED: How to Manage Your Blood Pressure Through Diet


Cereal Bars and Processed Protein Bars With Preservatives

protein bar

Certain minimally processed cereal and protein bars low in added sugar can offer nutritious options for breakfast or a post-workout snack, says Taub-Dix.

Why You Should Exercise Caution?Some cereal, cereal bars, and flour-based snacks contain butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) or butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), which prevent foods with?fats and oils from going rancid. The Environmental Working Group flags them as chemicals that may increase the risk of cancer or affect the immune system. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)?still considers these additives as “generally recognized as safe.” Meanwhile, the consumer group the?Center for Science in the Public Interest?advises caution when choosing foods with BHT and avoiding foods with BHA.

Bottom Line?The answer to whether these ingredients are healthy depends on whom you ask. As a rule of thumb, avoid bars that have a long list of ingredients you don’t recognize, especially if you’re eating these bars every day. “I recommend Kind bars,” says Taub-Dix. “When you look at them, you can actually see the ingredients, like?almonds, dried cranberries, and other fruits and?nuts. They have several bars that contain 5 g of sugar or less, and the fat is from nuts, not added fats.”


Brown Rice and Dangerous Arsenic Levels

brown rice up close

You’ve probably heard that brown rice is healthier than white, and by some measures (such as fiber and protein), it is, according to the?Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Why You Should Exercise Caution?Both white and, yes, brown rice can contain arsenic, a toxin that can raise your risk for cancer. As the FDA notes, brown rice generally has more arsenic than white.

The FDA made this risk clear in its report. Using white rice (since it’s the most commonly consumed variety), the agency predicts that going from consuming 1 cup of white rice to a half serving per day would cut the risk of developing certain cancers in half, from 136 cases per million people to 68 cases per million people. It’s important to note that this cancer risk is low, but there are some real — and easy — things you can do about it.

Bottom Line?Avoid consuming rice or rice products every day or eat a smaller portion. “Balance and variety in your diet is the key to this issue,” explains Taub-Dix. “Rice?contains valuable nutrients and can be part of a healthy diet, but you shouldn’t eat it every day. Swap rice for whole-wheat pasta?or potatoes with the skin on.” Quinoa, barley, and other whole grains are great rice alternatives as well. Also, wash your rice in filtered water before boiling. Volpe points to a study?that found simply washing rice before cooking can remove up to 43 percent of arsenic.


The Harmful Ingredients in Many Diet Sodas

up close diet soda

Many people choose to drink diet sodas because they contain zero calories. You can drink something sweet without contributing to weight gain. (Or that’s the thought.)

Why You Should Exercise Caution?When it comes to potential?cancer risk, it doesn’t matter if you’re drinking diet or regular soda. One study?analyzed soda consumption data to determine people’s exposure to a potentially carcinogenic ingredient: 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI), which is commonly used to manufacture some kinds of caramel coloring. A large percentage of people over age 6 have at least one can of soda per day, exposing them to this potentially harmful ingredient. There is currently no federal limit for the amount of 4-MEI in soda. What’s more, previous research?shows that overweight and obese adults who consumed diet drinks also ate an additional 88 to 194 calories from food compared with those who drank sugar-sweetened beverages. This suggests that diet sodas may not have the weight benefits that people often assume they do.

Bottom Line?Put down the soda already! Just because it’s diet doesn’t mean it’s?healthier for you. “Besides having zero calories, it has no nutritional value, and it could lead to?gastrointestinal?discomfort or bloat, and perhaps even cause some people to eat more,” says Taub-Dix.?This study is just another reason to quit this bad habit.

RELATED: Drinking Soda, Juice Daily Linked to 20 Percent Higher Heart Disease Risk in Women


Grilled Meats and Potential Cancer-Causing Compounds

grilled t bone steak

Grilling season can be one of the most waistline-friendly of times, since you can throw a piece of chicken, fish, or lean steak on the grill and cook it without added fat — the grill taste adds a mouthwatering flavor.

Why You Should Exercise Caution When meat is cooked at high temperatures, like on a grill, it creates chemical compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). This can happen as meat drippings hit the fire and cause flames and smoke that splash back on the meat, according to the National Cancer Institute. The organization points out that these compounds have been found to cause changes in DNA that may lead to cancer.

Bottom Line There are doable ways to enjoy grilling but reduce the formation of HCAs and PAHs, says Volpe. One of your best options is to marinate meat before cooking, which research?shows may decrease HCA formation by up to 88 percent. Volpe also suggests grilling meat in aluminum foil or putting fish on a cedar board to reduce the chance of splash back.


Lunch Meats Containing Harmful Nitrates and Nitrites

sliced lunch meat

Lunch meats are a staple good-for-you quick meal, as many leaner choices (like turkey, ham, or roast beef) can be lower in fat and calories than, say, a fast-food burger.

Why You Should Exercise Caution Nitrates and nitrites are used to preserve meats, and they are linked to an increased risk of cancer, per the?Harvard T.H. School of Public Health. In fact, processed meats are attributed to 14,524 cases of cancer per year, according to one study (mostly?colorectal cancer). Bacon and hot dogs are processed meats, but you’re probably trying to limit your intake of them already. Sneakier sources are cold cuts, or deli meats (such as turkey or ham), which are often considered a healthy option for sandwiches.

Bottom Line It might be time to switch up your sandwich fillings. The American Institute for Cancer Research suggests replacing deli meats with freshly cooked preparations. Now’s the time to buy a rotisserie chicken and use it to build your go-to sandwich on whole-grain bread with plenty of veggies for added nutrition.

RELATED: Do You Really Need to Eat Less Red Meat?


Vegetable Oils May Contribute to Inflammation

vegetable oil up close

Given the saturated fat found in butter, many people have switched to cooking with unsaturated oils like vegetable or canola.

Why You Should Exercise Caution There is a lot of soy, wheat, and corn grown in the United States, notes Volpe. Because of that, they are often enthusiastically added to our food in various forms — including oil — and if you eat processed fare, you may end up eating far more of these foods than you think. For that reason, she suggests making sure you have a varied diet, and one way you can do that is by changing up the oil you cook with.

A source of unsaturated fats, vegetable oil is listed as a heart-healthy option by the AHA. However, some experts are concerned because vegetable oils are a source of polyunsaturated linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid. Since modern-day diets contain an increasing amount of these oils (and thus omega-6s), this may actually drive inflammation that plays a role in the development of atherosclerosis (the buildup of fats and cholesterol in arteries), promoting heart disease, argues one article.

Bottom Line Go with olive, avocado, or safflower oil. “Olive oil contains monounsaturated fatty acids, making it heart-healthy. I recommend people cook with it and use it as much as possible,” says Volpe.

Additional reporting by Gabrielle Frank.

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

Everyday Health follows strict sourcing guidelines to ensure the accuracy of its content, outlined in our editorial policy. We use only trustworthy sources, including peer-reviewed studies, board-certified medical experts, patients with lived experience, and information from top institutions.


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