24 "Healthy" Foods That Aren't What They Seem (2024)

January 16, 2024

Studies indicate that between 60% and 90% of the Standard American Diet (SAD) consists of ultra-processed foods and beverages (1).

What’s worse is that the vast majority of these are marketed as healthy…

Deceptive marketing tactics tend to slap phases like Heart Healthy, Gluten Free, and Dairy Free on a label when, in reality, the food is pumped full of refined sugar, hydrogenated oils, trans fats, and artificial flavors and colors.

This makes eating healthy a bit trickier. But knowing which products wreak havoc on your health is vital information that will save the health of you and your family down the line. To help you out, I uncover 24 of the most common unhealthy “health” foods to avoid—and outsmart—this year. Let’s dive in.

Table Of Contents

1. Oat Milk

Nearly every oat milk option has a significantly higher amount of carbs than its counterparts (like almond milk, coconut milk, and cashew milk). Depending on the brand, one cup of unsweetened oat milk can have as many as 17 grams of carbs—not only that, but a large portion of those carbs are starch. 

In addition, since oats don't naturally contain fat, most brands are pumped full of seed oils  (canola oil, sunflower oil, etc)...although this isn't shown on the ingredient label.

2. Soy Milk

Soy milk doesn’t fair much better. It’s often heavily sweetened; a cup of Silk original soy milk packs 7 grams of sugar. 

Soy also contains estrogen-like compounds called isoflavones. Some research suggests that these compounds could promote the growth of some cancer cells, impair female fertility, and mess with thyroid function (2, 3, 4).

Native Swap: Try swapping your oat or soy milk for unsweetened nut milk, or you can easily make your own at home. Watch our Instagram Reel for the recipe and instructions!

3. Coffee Creamer

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Coffee by itself is rich in health benefits like reducing the risk of heart failure, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, while also strengthening your DNA and protecting your liver (5). But coffee creamer is a whole different story—even the non-dairy ones. 

Many coffee creamers (Coffee Mate, International Delight, Silk) contain added sugar and artificial sweeteners, but that’s not all. These creamers often get their rich, velvety taste from thickening agents and emulsifiers like carrageenan—a thickener, stabilizer, and texturizer that’s known to cause inflammation, digestive problems, and cancer (6).

Native Swap: Try switching out your coffee creamer with NativePath Collagen + MCT Creamer. You get that delicious coffee creamer flavor with the added benefit of grass-fed collagen peptides and organic MCT powder.

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Coffee Shop Flavor Without The Sugar

Each scoop adds a delicious hazelnut flavor with our signature blend of Grass-Fed Collagen and MCT Powder to support healthy bones and joints, with a boost of energy, focus, and metabolism, too.

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4. Flavored Yogurt

For those who aren’t lactose-intolerant, yogurt can be a healthy choice. However, flavored and “fruit on the bottom” yogurts can contain a surprising amount of sugar in just a small serving. For example, a 5.3-ounce container of Dannon Strawberry Fruit on the Bottom yogurt contains a hefty 15 grams of added sugar (7).

Native Swap: Instead of choosing sweetened yogurt, try topping unsweetened Greek yogurt with fresh fruit for a protein-packed snack with a touch of natural sweetness.

4. Gluten-Free Processed Foods

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While going gluten-free can be a lifesaver for those suffering from Celiac or gluten sensitivity, the gluten-free treats at your supermarket aren't always a bargain when it comes to your health.

Most GF products are heavily processed, contain seed oils and added sugar, and have less fiber and protein than similar products containing gluten.

6. Reduced-Fat Peanut Butter

When you compare labels of regular and reduced-fat peanut butter, you’ll see that the calories are roughly equal. The difference is that reduced-fat versions add more sugar to make up for the lack of fat.

So, when choosing a nut butter, choose the full-fat option. You’ll keep your blood sugar stable, feel fuller, and enjoy a better texture and flavor. One 2017 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that an eating plan that includes nuts, tree nuts, peanuts, and walnuts was even associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease (8). 

Native Swap: Look for a peanut butter with only one ingredient—peanuts. A lot of stores like Whole Foods actually have machines where you can grind your own peanut butter fresh!

7. Salad Dressing

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If you eat salad in hopes of better health and fewer calories, you may be undoing the benefits when using a store-bought salad dressing. Bottled dressings are often rich sources of seed oils, saturated fat, and added sugar.

The saturated fats in seed oils are a big problem since most people consume too much omega-6-rich fat and not enough omega-3s. Saturated fats have an omega-6-to-omega-3 ratio of about 20:1, far exceeding the body’s need for omega-6 fats (9). 

Research has found that this imbalance in the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is closely linked to systemic inflammation, and studies suggest it may contribute to diseases like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (10, 11).

P.S. Beware of pre-mixed salad kits, too. These typically contain highly processed, high-calorie dressings and toppings.

Native Swap: Mix the following into a small jar, mix thoroughly, and enjoy! 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, 2 tablespoons lemon juice (freshly squeezed), 1 teaspoon stone-ground Dijon mustard, and salt and pepper to taste.

8. Ketchup

When you see a bottle of ketchup, you probably think it just contains some tomatoes, vinegar, and a dash of salt. ​If that were the case, then ketchup wouldn’t be on this list of so-called “healthy” foods.

The shift towards unhealthy territory for ketchup begins when high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is added—a sweetener derived from corn starch. Interestingly, on a Heinz ketchup ingredient label, HFCS claims the second spot. This implies that, following tomato puree (the first ingredient), HFCS is the second most abundant component in ketchup.

HFCS is risky since the body metabolizes fructose differently than other sugars. This has raised concerns about the possible role of HFCS contributing to obesity, insulin resistance, overeating, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and chronic conditions like heart disease (12).

Native Swap: Try finding a ketchup with no added sugar or HFCS. We like True Made Foods Ketchup.

9. Popcorn

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Popcorn is another sneaky “healthy” snack. While it’s low-calorie, most popcorn is loaded with saturated fats like palm oil, canola oil, and sunflower oil. Some popular brands contain up to 4 grams of saturated fat in a single serving. That’s 20 percent of your daily recommended intake. In case you’re wondering, one serving is only about a third of a bag. And let's be honest, who stops eating popcorn after finishing a third of a bag?

Native Swap: If you need a little movie night snack, we recommend Lesser Evil Popcorn. It’s made with only organic popcorn, extra-virgin coconut oil, and Himalayan pink salt.

10. Whole Wheat or Multi-Grain Bread

Don’t be fooled by terms like "multigrain," "wheat," or "7 grain"...they don't mean much when it comes to your health. In the United States, only 51% of a product has to contain whole grains for it to earn the label. This means that up to 49% of that product can contain processed grains and other fillers and still get a “Whole Grain Product” stamp of approval.

That said, many bread loaves labeled multigrain/wheat/7 grain often contain a significant portion of refined grains. This results in a lower fiber content compared to whole grains, leading to a quicker spike in blood sugar after consumption and potentially triggering cravings. And to top it off, certain varieties, particularly those marketed as "honey whole wheat," may be loaded with high fructose corn syrup and molasses, further impacting their nutritional profile.

11. Instant Oatmeal

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Instant oats often come packaged in individual portions with additives—such as artificial flavors, milk powder, and sugars. 

If you look at the flavored varieties, the first and second ingredients are oats and sugar, respectively. Right off, that tells you that it’s a fake healthy food. Some brands and flavors may contain anywhere from 10 to 17 grams of added sugar per packet. Plus, “blueberry-flavored pieces” don’t sound quite right either, do they?

12. Granola (& Granola Bars)

So, here's the thing about granola...its reputation as a healthy food isn't exactly well-earned. I mean, if you look at the granolas at your local supermarket, you'll find that a lot of them are made with vegetable oil and white sugar. Plus, they typically pack a lot of calories in a small portion—with some brands having over 400 calories per cup (and that's before you even add milk!).

And when it comes to granola bars, they’re often smothered with chocolate chips (or even frosting!), further racking up the sugar content.

Native Swap: If you love granola, try making it yourself at home or finding a grain-free alternative with no refined sugars or filler ingredients.

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Grain-Free Granola is lovingly crafted with nuts, superfood seeds, and hints of cinnamon, sea salt, and vanilla bean—for a salty-sweet irresistible blend.

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13. Vitamin Gummies

I have a story for this one…

Just yesterday, I was sitting next to a nice older man on the plane. Ironically, we got to talking about the different foods that are marketed as healthy but in reality, fall short. He mentioned how he and his sister had gone grocery shopping at a fancy health food store in Southern California earlier that week. And while they were there, there was a woman handing out samples of—you guessed it—vitamin gummies…

Intrigued, they walked over. Before sampling, his sister looked at the back of the label and was shocked…she couldn’t believe how much sugar was in it! She put it right back down, walked away, and fumed about the outrageousness of adding sugar to a vitamin. If you can walk away from a free sample, then it probably shouldn’t go in your body—and you probably shouldn’t spend your hard-earned money on it.

Native Swap: Try switching your vitamin gummy for a natural vitamin or supplement with no added sugar, artificial dyes, or flavors.

14. Protein Bars

Protein can be a great way to fuel your muscles, but protein bars aren’t your best option for high-quality protein. The soy or whey content may cause gastrointestinal distress, like cramps and bloating. Also, many of these bars contain artificial sweeteners, flavors, colors, and high fructose corn syrup.

15. Trail Mix

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Let's be real, most trail mix is basically just chocolate chips and sugary dried fruit with a few nuts sprinkled in.

Native Swap: An easier—and healthier—alternative is a small handful of raw salted nuts. This will keep you full without all the extra sugar.

16. Topo Chico

Mineral water sounds super healthy, right? Who doesn’t need more minerals in their diet? Well, these cute little glass bottles aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. In fact, in a 2020 study, Coca-Cola's Topo Chico contained the highest level of PFAS with 9.76 ppt (13).

If you're unaware of PFAS, here's the gist: the "per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances" (PFAS) are man-made chemicals found in food packaging, stain-resistant fabrics, and more. The chemicals have been tied to a number of health concerns, including low birth weight, cancer, and thyroid hormone disruption (14). They've been dubbed "forever chemicals" because of their ability to, well, last forever in our bodies and in the environment.

17. Yogurt Covered Raisins

This one is a real trickster. I mean, raisins are good for you, and so is yogurt (the unflavored kind, of course). So, you would think that yogurt-covered raisins are one of the healthy sweet treats you can enjoy. However, the label states that they’re covered in a “yogurt-flavored coating”—a coating consisting of sugar, hydrogenated palm kernel oil, and more.

Native Swap: Take raisins, toss them in Greek yogurt, and freeze. I even mix a little cinnamon in my yogurt for added flavor. These are the best yogurt-covered raisins ever—guaranteed.

18. Veggie Chips

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If it comes in chip form, chances are it's not really good for you. Just like regular potato chips, most veggie chips are deep-fried in vegetable oil and loaded with salt.

Native Swap: If you’re craving something crunchy, you’d be better off eating carrots, sliced cucumbers, or sugar snap peas with some hummus (just make sure the hummus doesn’t have any vegetable oils…it’s in everything).

19. Diet Sodas

Even though diet soda has no sugar and usually zero calories, studies have shown that folks who regularly drink diet soda are more likely to develop certain health issues compared to those who don't drink it.

For example, it’s also associated with a higher risk of metabolic syndrome, a group of symptoms that include increased belly fat, blood sugar, blood pressure, and blood fat levels (15, 16).

Research suggests that diet soda may contribute to these health issues by altering brain responses to food, increasing the desire for highly palatable foods like calorie-dense sweets (17, 18).

20. Sports Drinks

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While companies market sports drinks as ways to boost your workouts, these beverages are unnecessary for most people.

Many sports beverages contain a shocking amount of sugar. For example, a 20-ounce (591-mL) bottle of Orange Gatorade contains 34 grams of added sugar (19).

They’re also often high in ingredients like artificial sweeteners, flavors, and colors. Some even contain large amounts of caffeine.

Some popular sports drinks to avoid include Gatorade, Powerade, Prime, Vitaminwater, and Propel.

Native Swap: Ditch your post-workout sports drink for an electrolyte powder with BCAAs to promote muscle recovery.

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Hydrate Smarter, Not Harder

Native Hydrate is a zero-sugar electrolyte and BCAA drink mix that combines 14 vitamins and minerals, all 9 essential amino acids, and 2,000 mg of BCAAs into one convenient scoop.

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21. Fruit Juice (Like Orange, Apple, & Cranberry)

Juice—even fresh-pressed or squeezed brands—is loaded with sugar and carbs. Not only that, but the juicing process pretty much eliminates all of the gut-healthy fiber you find in fresh fruit. In fact, to get the same amount of fiber found in one apple (with the skin on), you would have to drink around 8 cups of juice. Now, that’s a lot of sugar.

Native Swap: Swap your daily glass of fruit juice for organic coconut water, flavored collagen powder, or a flavored electrolyte powder.

22. Bottled Green Juices

Bottled green juices follow the same script as fruit juices. Most store-bought green juices are filled with carbs and added sugar. A bottle of Naked Juice Green Machine contains 63 grams of carbohydrates—nearly 25% of your total daily carbohydrate requirements (20).

Native Swap: If you’re struggling to meet your daily fruit and veggie goal, reach for a greens powder that’s made with a concentrated source of organic whole foods like spinach, blueberries, and ginger.

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21 Superfoods in One Convenient Scoop

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23. Pre-Made Smoothies

As we learned with the juices, just because there’s a fruit or leafy green in it doesn’t make it healthy. There’s a fine line between a smoothie and a milkshake. Smoothie King’s 20-ounce Hulk Strawberry, for example, is made with butter pecan ice cream—and contains almost 1,000 calories (21).

Native Swap: Try making your own smoothies at home. You can pack them full of whole, nutritious fruits and veggies—plus a scoop of collagen for a protein boost. Here’s a recipe to get you started.

24. Plant-Based Meat Products

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Vegetable protein-based products, like burgers that attempt to replicate the taste and texture of meat, have been gaining popularity over the past few years. But they aren’t all they are cracked up to be health-wise.

These “meats” are filled with heavily processed ingredients like pea protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, yeast extract, canola oil, natural flavors, potassium chloride, dextrose, and synthetic vitamins in order to somewhat resemble meat.

Organic, grass-fed beef will supply you with necessary B vitamins, iron, zinc, and selenium, with none of the fillers. Beyond Meat offers none of these vital nutrients except for iron (in the form of non-heme iron, the less bioavailable version of iron) (22).

Native Swap: Just stick to the real stuff—organic grass-fed beef. If you don’t eat meat, there are plenty of ways to get your protein and vitamins through legumes and vegetables.

Kat Kennedy
Article by

Kat Kennedy

Kat Kennedy is the Fitness and Nutrition Editor at NativePath. With a NASM CPT, NCSF CPT, and NCSF Sports Nutrition Certification, she has a passion for giving people the tools they need to feel healthy, strong, and confident.

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    Medical Disclaimer

    This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.

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