Is a granola bar “healthy”? What about sushi or coconut oil?
In May of this year, the New York Times and the polling firm Morning Consult surveyed average Americans and nutritionists about their thoughts on the healthfulness of 52 common foods. Turns out that what’s “healthy” is not a cut-and-dry answer; there was plenty of debate over what’s “good for you” and what’s not. Here are the top seven foods that nutritionists and the public can’t seem to agree on — and why we think the gap exists:
Foods the Public Considers ‘Healthy’ (But Not Nutritionists)
1. Granola Bars/Granola
According to the survey, more than 70% of the public deemed granola bars and granola as healthy, but less than 50% of nutritionists agreed. Granola bars and granola contain a medley of wholesome ingredients (usually oats, honey, dried fruit and nuts to name a few), so it’s no wonder they’re seen as healthy by the public. Unfortunately, these ingredients are also calorie-dense, not to mention there are preservatives, additives and added sugars found in many store-bought varieties. For example, a Clif Bar Oatmeal Raisin Walnut (250 calories, 20 grams sugar) packs more calories — and nearly as many grams of sugar — than one Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar (210 calories, 24 grams sugar).
- Read the nutrition label. Aim for less than 35% of calories coming from sugar in your granola or granola bar.
- Investigate the ingredients list. Can you recognize the ingredients?
- Make your own granola bars and granola. Try this easy six-ingredient granola recipe.
2. Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is exceptionally high (about 90%, in fact) in saturated fat, a fat linked with higher levels of blood cholesterol and heart disease risk. However, google “coconut oil,” and you will find millions of search results endorsing coconut oil as a skin moisturizer, cooking essential and a natural remedy, among other uses. Our senior registered dietitian and food and nutrition editor, Elle Penner, decided to investigate: Is coconut oil all it’s cracked up to be? She concluded that although the predominant saturated fat in coconut oil, lauric acid, has a slightly beneficial effect on cholesterol levels when used in place of other saturated fats, coconut oil is still a calorie-dense fat and best used in moderation. Keep it in your pantry, but don’t rely on it as your only source of cooking oil.
Nutrition Tip: In addition to coconut oil, stock up on an array of vegetable oils such as olive and canola, which contain mostly unsaturated fat.
3. Frozen Yogurt
In recent years, we’ve seen an explosion of frozen yogurt stores, which have earned a health halo via their claims of froyo being lowfat and high in calcium and probiotics. But what froyo stores don’t tell you is that the healthy bacteria usually don’t survive long enough to enter your digestive tract due to long shelf life and manufacturing processes. On top of that, frozen yogurt is extremely high in sugar — a 1/2-cup serving delivers 17 grams of sugar! For example, if you investigate the ingredients list of popular froyo chain Yogurtland, you will find that sugar or a sugar substitute is the second most-used ingredient in most of their frozen yogurt. (How many of these 44 nicknames for added sugar can you recognize?)
In addition, most froyo stores have a self-serve layout, making it easy to overdo it on the portion size and add on unlimited toppings. Don’t get us wrong — we’re not saying you should forgo froyo with friends, but as with everything, moderation is key.
- Portion control: Ask for the small cup. Go to the toppings station first, and load your cup with fresh fruit, anything else you want and then top it with froyo.
- Try plain Greek yogurt with your favorite froyo toppings instead. It’s high in protein, and you can control the amount of added sugars.
4. Orange Juice
More than 75% of the public viewed orange juice as healthy, whereas 62% of nutritionists did. Juices have had a bad rep among nutrition pros for quite some time because of their high-sugar, low-fiber content. Many store-bought juices are practically liquid sugar. One 8-ounce serving of Tropicana No Pulp contains 22 grams of sugar, which is only 2 grams less than a Hershey bar. This isn’t to say that the public is misinformed on the healthfulness of orange juice. OJ, specifically the home-juiced with pulp kind, does pack nutritious fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Nutrition Tip: Opt for the whole fruit instead. We know a refreshing glass of juice is hard to beat, so enjoy juice as part of a balanced diet (about 4 ounces per day).
Foods Nutritionists Consider ‘Healthy’ (But Not the Public)
A recent Harvard study showed that people who ate 70 grams of whole grains per day, or about 4 servings, had a lower mortality rate compared with those who ate little or no whole grains. More than just a whole grain ingredient (technically it’s a seed), quinoa is a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids. So, why the disconnect between experts and the public? This may be because quinoa is relatively new to the American diet and not many know what to make of it yet. Based on 2016’s Google Food Trends, quinoa is falling in trendiness and expected to decrease in demand every year. Despite this, the Google query “is quinoa gluten free?” (and, yes, it is) grew by 16%, suggesting that those following a gluten-free diet are still interested in the pseudograin.
Recipe Tip: Nutty, chewy and fluffy, quinoa works great in any dish in addition to or in place of grains such as rice, barley or couscous. Get inspired with our list of quinoa recipes.
Tofu, the popular meat alternative made from soybeans, is a very good source of protein at 10 grams per half-cup. It’s also rich in calcium, iron and omega-3 fatty acids! In the public eye, soy can seem controversial because it contains isoflavones, phytoestrogens that mimic the hormone estrogen and can disrupt the body’s normal functions. Although some feared that these estrogen-like compounds would increase the risk of hormone-related cancers, studies have proved otherwise — and that regular soy consumption may reduce breast cancer risk in women (see here and here). Soy’s effects on health are still being actively researched, but most experts agree that it is safe even for breast cancer survivors to eat up to three servings of soy foods per day.
Recipe Tip: Plain tofu can be pretty bland and boring, so here are 52 brilliant ways to spice it up.
Now consumed all over the world, this Japanese staple is shedding its foreigner status. Let’s break sushi down into its main components: rice, fish, seaweed, ginger and wasabi. Rice provides the carbohydrate-rich base for sustaining fullness. Fish provides heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and filling protein. Seaweed is an excellent source of iodine, an essential element that regulates the thyroid gland. Ginger and wasabi provide antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. With so much to love, it’s hard to see cons, but be aware — one specialty roll can contain 550 calories and nearly half your maximum daily sodium recommendation!
Nutrition Tip: Learn how to order sushi without breaking the calorie bank.
Bottom line, your diet doesn’t need to categorize every food as “good” or “bad.” If you love frozen yogurt and granola, have some! If you aren’t keen on tofu or quinoa, explore them — but don’t force it into your diet to feel “healthy.” Keep your health and fitness goals on track with a balanced diet, exercise and, of course, moderate indulgences. (And make tracking it all easier by logging it into your MyFitnessPal app.)