We’re all guilty of picking up a dangerfood every once in a while. They seem innocent enough on the outside, masquerading behind their whole wheat-touting labels or a crunchy bed of lettuce. But a closer look at nutrition labels reveals dirty little secrets: shrouds of sugar, calorie-packed dressing, and more. Here’s a roundup of our Greatist dangerfoods. Are they in your pantry?
19 ‘healthy foods’ you may want to reconsider
1. Trail Mix
Yes, it’s packed with protein and omega-3s and makes for a portable, satisfying snack. But what lurks behind these nutty, prepackaged snacks are loads of excess sugar, oils, and preservatives. Even though the nuts in trail mix are filled with heart-healthy fats, that also means they’re high in calories. Add on the yogurt coating, extra-salty varieties and sugar-packed dried fruits (another dangerfood!), and there’s a bit of a dilemma. Avoid prepackaged mixes with lots of fruit and opt for homemade batches with unsalted nuts and all-natural fruits.
Hummus is close to our hearts, so this one hurts—it’s another calorie trap, with each container packing up to 700 calories. While this garbanzo bean-based dip does offer a good dose of protein, heart-healthy fats, and fiber, working it into a healthy diet is all about portion control.1 Stick to one serving (2 tablespoons) to keep the calorie count under 80. Also try to stick to lower-calorie and -carb dippers like fresh veggies (we love carrots, celery, snap peas, and broccoli) instead of pita chips or pretzels. Key word: try.
Yes, this crunchy, nutty breakfast treat may look like a healthy way to start the day. But unfortunately, commercial varieties roasted with sweeteners and dried fruit may be higher in sugar and calories than their fiber-filled oats are worth. When strolling down the granola aisle, avoid any varieties with sugary ingredients—fructose, corn syrup, cornstarch, chocolate—high on the nutrition label, and beware of terms like ‘glazed’ or ‘frosted.’
It’s a healthier dinner than fried chicken, we’ll give you that. But despite the fresh veggies and omega-3-filled fish, sushi can be a silent killer when it comes to calorie counts, often packed with too much rice (sometimes a full cup per roll!), fried fillings, and heavy sauces. Instead, opt for sashimi (slices of fish without the rice), or a brown rice roll with only fresh fish (hold the sauce). Another word to the wise: Stay away from special Americanized rolls (like the popular Philadelphia roll) that are often filled with extra calories from cream cheese or (yes) even bacon.
Read more: 9 worst restaurant meals in America
5. Frozen Yogurt
It might be a healthier alternative to ice cream, but frozen yogurt doesn’t always make it all the way to the healthy. While brands with live, active yogurt cultures (a.k.a. probiotics) may offer some health benefits, they’re also often packed with sugar and preservatives.
6. Dried Fruit
While dried fruit does have some redeeming qualities (at least compared to juicing), varieties with added chemicals and sugar make it easy to question these healthy claims. To pick a healthier version, look for ‘no sugar added’ or brands that use alternative sweeteners like all-natural fruit juice (although, see: number 17). Also beware of serving sizes: Dried fruit is considered an energy dense food, high in calories, and relatively low in nutritional value. Looking for a healthy snack? Keep going.
While we’re a little skeptical bagels were ever considered healthy, in the yesteryear of 3 ounce bagels, we can imagine they didn’t look so bad. Nevertheless, today they often clock in at twice that. And while they do offer a small dose of iron, fiber, and protein, at up to 360 calories a pop, they can pack as much as 100 more calories and twice the carbs of the average frosted doughnut. D’oh, indeed—that’s about 70 grams of carbohydrates in one 4 1/2 inch bagel, or almost half of the USDA’s daily recommended intake.
8. Diet Soda
Diet drinks may sound healthier, but some studies suggest drinking diet soda might actually be linked to greater weight gain than its sugary cousins. Another study found people who drink more than one diet soda per day have experienced a greater increase in waist size over almost 10 years than those who avoid the bubbles completely. One of the biggest factors to blamed? Aspartame, a calorie-free sweetener used in many diet sodas. And the evidence keeps growing: Another study found that even when groups consumed a similar number of calories, the aspartame-exposed group gained more weight. Bubble, burst.
Read more: 5 serious health risks of drinking diet soda
Sure, they’re filling and inexpensive. But potatoes’ high glycemic load (or how they affect blood sugar) could send them to the nutritional dark side when eaten in excess, with a similar effect to a handful of jelly beans. And aside from this natural downside, potato preparation often makes them even more dangerous, from French fried or baked and loaded to mashed and gravy-ed, which can each hold as many as 500 calories per serving (and that’s without the main dish!).
Read more: 8 ways to save while dining out
10. Peanut Butter
Just one two-tablespoon serving of this favorite nutty spread packs around 190 calories. By themselves, peanuts are pretty innocent. Once they’re processed and turned into butter? Then we’re entering dangerous territory. The nuts are roasted, shelled, and ground, at which point they’re typically mixed with other ingredients like salt, hydrogenated vegetable oil, dextrose, corn syrup, and honey. These added ingredients help to extend shelf life and make life a little sweeter, but they can also mean the addition of trans fats—even if the label says ‘zero trans fat‘—which can raise ‘bad’ (LDL) cholesterol. Studies have found that even without overeating, trans fats enhance weight gain, which just goes too far. There’s nothing like sneaking a spoonful of peanut butter late at night, but maybe avoid making it a habit.
11. Granola Bars
Although convenient, just like granola and dried fruit, these oat, grain, and nut-packed bars aren’t always as wholesome as they may seem. Popular brands like Quaker Oats and Nature Valley can contain as many as 25 ingredients, 13 grams of sugar, and sugar-filled ingredients like chocolate and peanut butter. In fact, these bars can actually be almost as bad as eating a real candy bar in terms of sugar and calories. Plus, many brands contain high fructose corn syrup (linked to weight gain and insulin resistance); hydrogenated oils (which can raise cholesterol levels); and monosodium glutamate or MSG (linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes).
12. Caesar Salad
Just because it’s on a bed of lettuce doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Caesar salad may seem like a healthy menu option, but its calories-laden dressing, blanket of cheese, and refined grains make it a not-so-smart choice. In moderation, all of those are fine. But take a closer look, and the good cop goes bad: The classic Caesar dressing is made from egg yolks, which are high in calories and cholesterol, and may also carry Salmonella. Parmesan cheese may be a good source of calcium and protein in moderation, but when it’s piled sky high, those benefits are outweighed. And the croutons? Just added carbs and calories.
13. Energy Drinks
Sometimes, we’ll do anything for a little energy boost. But are canned energy drinks really worth it? Packed with calories and sugar, the answer is most likely a firm ‘not really.’ Many also contain unhealthy doses of caffeine, which can lead to anxiety, insomnia, irregular heartbeat, and increased blood pressure. And while single serving 8-ounce cans typically keep caffeine at a reasonable level, the super-sized drinks and concentrated energy ‘shots’ can contain more than 200 mg. Throwing in unverified supplements (like taurine and ginkgo biloba) and combining them with alcohol (say, Red Bull and vodka) makes them even more questionable—and potentially dangerous.
14. Green Bean Casserole
As close as the green bean casserole is to our holiday-loving heart, sometimes change is for the best. With a base of condensed cream of mushroom soup, many recipes are automatically overloaded with sodium (up to 1,000mg!), which has been linked to high blood pressure when consumed in excess. And the fried onions? The ‘fried’ part should be a dead giveaway.
OK, yogurt is mostly healthy. Got a hankering for some low fat plain Greek yogurt with fresh berries and a drizzle of honey? Go for it! Just beware the siren song of the toppings, flavors, and add-ins available today, because that’s where the trouble starts. Flavors with lots of added sugar (so basically, any flavored concoction) can rack up the calorie and carb count far beyond that of natural yogurt. If ingredients like corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, maltose, or any other ‘syrup’ or ‘sugar’ appear on the label, it’s probably best to stay away.
16. Canned Produce
It’s just like the old saying goes, a corn of cob in the fridge is worth two cans in the cabinet. Just us? Regardless, it’s true—fresh is always better. Often saturated with excess sodium or sugar, canned produce is rarely a smarter choice. And the potential harm of BPA found in canned foods? Just another downside.
17. Fruit Juice
Just because it came from fruit doesn’t mean it has the same benefits. One cup—take apple, for example—can pack more than 100 calories. Some nutritionists believe the real problem starts when people think about juice (or any liquid) as calorie free, which is clearly not true. But our biggest problem with juice is the sugar. Yes, fruit naturally has a good deal of it, but squeezing it (literally) into juice form makes it go down that much easier. Plus, juicing removes the super-healthy fiber that real fruit provides. Goodbye, redeeming qualities!
Read more: 7 ways to save money on groceries
18. Veggie Burgers
When not so keen on meat (or just looking for a break), veggie burgers might be a good alternative. But the excess sodium, processed ingredients, and even the possibility of toxins (!) easily push veggie burgers into the danger zone. Patties made out of straight veggies might be okay, but those with processed soy (which some studies suggest lack the benefits of natural soy) aren’t as smart of a choice. And with sodium levels that can skyrocket past 400 mg per patty, they may even be a gateway to serious health issues like high blood pressure and kidney disease.
19. Breakfast Cereal
Say it with me, people: Excess sugar is bad! Sensing a theme, here? In addition to having no nutritional benefits of its own, the added sugar in breakfast cereal can increase the risk of tooth decay, weight gain, and heart disease. Plus, sticking to one serving is nearly impossible—just look at how 3/4 cup, the recommended serving size, stacks up to a regular morning’s pour. And, gulp: One serving of Frosted Mini Wheats, for example, contains only five pieces for 175 calories! Opt for a whole grain, fiber-filled, low-sugar variety, though, and the benefits may start to outweigh the downsides.