5 surprisingly unhealthy ‘health’ foods

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Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
Ask Emma

26 November 2019

What health foods are bad for you?

From clever marketing ploys, to the positioning of ingredients in the supermarket, there are several reasons why certain foods may be considered healthy options, despite the fact that their ingredient list suggests otherwise. Some products that fall into this group include:

  1. Cereal bars
  2. Fruit juices
  3. Low-fat items
  4. Muesli and granola
  5. Meat-free 'meat'. 

Read on to find out why these options may not be as healthy as them seem, and get some ideas on how to swap these for healthier alternatives. 

1. Cereal bars

The UK's food and drink markets are big businesses – just last year their total estimated worth sat at around £112 billion. Advertising foods as 'healthy' is one way in which to stand out in this crowded market and this may explain why cereal bars are often portrayed in a positive light.

However, a study by consumer group Which? analysed 30 popular cereal bars and found that all but one was considered high in sugar. More than half of those analysed for the study also contained over 30%, sugar and one particular product had more sugar than a can of Coca-Cola!1

Which? also found that cereal bars were high in saturated fat.

What's the alternative?

Making your own cereal bars is a good way to control how much sugar and fat they contain. Part of the appeal of cereal bars is that they are convenient, though, so you may be thinking this benefit is somewhat lost if you have to go through the process of buying ingredients to make your own. However, cereal bars are actually super simple to make – our Orange Oat Bars, for example, contain just 4 healthy ingredients! So, next time you are doing your weekly shop, simply add these to your list. I like to make a batch on a Sunday evening to have available to snack on throughout the week.

2. Fruit juices

Often advertised as one of your 5-a-day, fruit juice is largely seen as a healthy option. Whilst a small glass can be a good source of nutrients, including vitamin C, several glasses contains lots of sugar. You can see from the table below that there isn't a lot of difference between the quantity of sugar in fizzy juice and fruit juice, though we must bear in mind that fizzy juice does contain sweeteners in addition to sugar, plus the sugars in fruit juice are largely natural.

Another problem with fruit juice is that the act of blending can remove its fibre. Not only is this nutrient essential for our health, it also helps slow the absorption of the fruit's sugar content. The absence of fibre also means that juice can only ever count as one portion of your five a day, regardless of how much you drink.

Bottled smoothies are similarly high in sugar so these are another drink to be wary of. A 250ml smoothie bottle can contain as much as 30g of sugar, for example, which is worrying given that guidelines suggest we consume no more than 30g of sugar a day. Technically, though, smoothies should also contain a higher fibre content, especially if whole fruits are used to make them, so they can in some cases be preferable to juice. 

Drink Quantity Calories Sugar
Orange juice from concentrate (smooth) 100ml 47 10.5g
Apple juice from concentrate 100ml 46 9.5g
Fresh apple juice not from concentrate 100ml 40 9g
Coca-Cola 100ml 42 10.6g (+ sweeteners)
Lemonade 100ml 18 4.2g (+ sweeteners)
Fizzy orange 100ml 19 4.6g (+ sweeteners)
Bottled red berry smoothie 100ml 45 10.6g
Bottled mango and passionfruit smoothie 100ml 57 12g

What's the alternative?

Whilst one glass of fruit juice a day is generally seen as ok, we don't want to consume more than this so it is sensible to look for an alternative. Also, look for juices that are not from concentrate as these are generally lower in sugar and better overall quality. 

My advice is to consider opting for smoothies as an alternative to juices on some days and, even better, why not try making your own smoothies from fresh fruit and vegetables? If you want to give this one a go, we have a range of healthy smoothie recipes available on our website.

Another option is to go for a more natural fruit juice such as those provided by Biotta which are 100% organic and 100% natural.

My Top Tip:

Biotta's Prune Juice has traditionally been used to support digestion. It is made from a blend of prunes, grape juice, apricot, aronia and lemon and is not from concentrate.

"Just the right juice for first thing in the morning so refreshing."

Read more customer reviews

3. Low-fat items

From skinny lattes, to low-fat ready meals and crisps, the variety of low-fat foods now on offer is huge. Whether it's to lose weight or just to eat a healthier diet, I am sure we have all tried these foods from time to time, but just how healthy are they?

One problem with these products is that, when producers cut out fat, they must then add extra ingredients to make the meal or snack palatable. Most often, sweeteners and salt are used to do this which can result in a food that's high in both these components.

Low-fat yoghurt is just one example where this tends to occurs regularly. 100g of organic natural yoghurt has approximately 5.6g of sugar, for example, whilst a low-fat variety can contain about 7g of sugar, on average. Fruit flavoured yogurts and even Greek yogurt, which we generally think of as being a healthier variety, can also contain a lot of sugar. So, my advice would be to opt for plain, natural yoghurt and, if you like it sweet, add a touch of fruit or honey which can help offer some natural sweetness.

Another problem with low-fat food products is that they are often deliberately low in calories. This means we are likely to get hungry again soon after eating and, as a result, we can end up snacking more (and it may not always be healthy things we go for!). We're much better off opting for meals with sufficient calories, as well as good proportions of protein and healthy fats, to help keep us feeling fuller for longer. 

Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, low-fat ready meals are becoming  increasingly popular – we have frozen ones, organic ones and ones to suit every stage of the day. Do bear in mind, however, that regardless of how it is labelled, a processed meal is still a processed option that offers less nutritionally than a fresh, home-cooked meal.

What's the alternative?

Healthy meals incorporating the right kinds of fats can be achieved by cooking yourself at home, although this may take a touch longer than your 2-minute ready meal! Below I've listed some super simple recipes to help you get started!

4. Muesli and granola

Two cereal options that are generally considered quite healthy are muesli and granola but, unfortunately, this isn't always the reality.

Some varieties of muesli and granola can have as much sugar as a bowl of frosted flakes which, if you are trying to eat healthily, you will no doubt do your best to avoid. In addition to this, granola can contain a high quantity of saturated fats.

My advice when choosing these products would be to double check the labels, however, these usually only indicate the sugar and fat content of, say, 30g of cereal when, in reality, people will eat much more than this (a bowl can often end up equating to around 60g!). We are also often inclined to add things like milk or yoghurt to our cereal which can risk bumping the sugar content up further (especially if, as I've just discussed, we opt for low-fat items here).

What's the alternative?

Now, I'm not saying you should avoid muesli and granola completely as both these breakfast options can contain nuts and seeds and dried fruit elements which are all super healthy.

If you can make your own muesli, however, that way you know exactly what's gone into it. You could make a big batch of our Muesli with a Twist and keep it stored in your kitchen.

I would also suggest porridge if you are looking for a healthy breakfast as this is filling and releases energy slowly to help sustain you throughout the morning.

5. Meat-free ‘meat’

According to a study conducted by The Vegan Society, there were 600,000 vegans in the UK in 2019, a number that has quadrupled since 2014.2 As a result of this, the number of vegan products in our supermarkets is growing fast which has numerous benefits for animal welfare and the environment.

When following a vegan diet, however, we may be tempted to include meat substitutes in a bid to help ensure we get enough protein and to make meals more filling. Meat substitutes can be convenient and can also help new vegans adjust to the diet.

So, these are some positives, but what is the downside to meat-free 'meat'? Well, vegan meat-like products are highly processed which, like any processed food, means they can be high in salt and sugar. They are also likely to contain additional flavourings in order to replicate the taste of meat and these aren't always natural.

Vegan meats are also unlikely to contain whole foods. Vegan bacon, for example, can be made up of 'rehydrated textured soya protein' whilst the ingredients listed in vegan chicken include 'soy structure'. I don't know about you, but I'm not exactly sure what this means!

What's the alternative?

Our recipe hub shows that you can make vegan meals filling and healthy, without using any 'meat-free' substitutes. I'd recommend opting for more natural sources of protein to bulk up meals, including beans, lentils, chickpeas, nuts, seeds and quinoa. Take a look at our Vegan Burgers with Quinoa and Vegetables for inspiration!


Originally written 30 August 2019 (updated 26 November 2019)


1 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-19300160 

2 https://www.vegansociety.com/news/media/statistics 

What you said!

We recently ran a poll to find out if you would consider going vegan. We've crunched the numbers and here are the results.

Results: Would you consider going vegan?

30.2% of you said you would not go vegan, but you would have meat-free days during the week. Great choice! Reducing meat consumption not only has several health benefits, but also has a positive effect on the environment.


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