Are the new food brands really healthier - or just hype?

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There's an explosion of new products on supermarket shelves, thanks to the growing number of shoppers who are snubbing traditional brands and loading up their shopping carts with smaller progressive brands that appear to be more authentic, transparent and healthier – for both people and the planet.

It's estimated that the top 25 U.S. food and beverage companies (think Kraft, Kellogg, ConAgra and Unilever) lost some $18 billion in market share over the past six years, while boutique brands are flying off supermarket shelves.

If you're like most shoppers, you're probably looking for foods and beverages that are truly good for you. Here's how to make sure you load up your shopping cart with healthier options:

Trendy Doesn't Equal Healthy

Gluten-free. Wheat-free. Paleo. Plant-based.

You know someone who swears by each of these food trends, but that doesn't mean it's the right way for you to eat, and it doesn't make the food or beverage nutritious.

Nutrition trends come and go, and niche startups can leverage these consumer trends to sell more products because they can more quickly develop and market foods and beverages that capitalize on shoppers' desires – whether that's by including today's superfood (i.e., coconut or turmeric) or avoiding the ingredient non grata (i.e., wheat or gluten). For a clear picture of what you're buying, read the Nutrition Facts panel and ingredient list.

[See: 6 Fruits and Vegetables You Should Eat This Fall.]

Don't Believe Everything They Claim

A good-for-you brand should have a nutrition profile and ingredient list that speaks for itself. I recently saw marketing materials from a new plant-based brand that explained how harmful and disease-promoting dairy foods are, rather that making a case for the healthfulness of its own product.

Companies that disparage their competitors by using terms for them like "dirty," "toxic" or "disease-promoting" may or may not be as healthful as you might think.

RELATED: Are you making this simple mistake?

7 foods you should buy frozen vs fresh
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7 foods you should buy frozen vs fresh


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Photo credit: Getty


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Assorted berries

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Bell peppers

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Read Beyond Buzzwords

Buzzwords like "natural," "superfood," "lightly-processed," "free-from" or "clean" tell you nothing about what's most important for your health, like calories, sugar, saturated fat or sodium content. What's more, all of those terms are essentially unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so brands can make up their own meaning. In fact, numerous lawsuits have been filed against food companies by consumers who believe they were misled by the term "natural" used on packaged foods.

[See: Quinoa 101: What It Is and How to Cook It.]

Size Doesn't Matter

If you're trying to eat a diet free from Big Food (large, multinational companies) because you believe their products are junk, you might want to follow the money. Many of the largest food companies have gobbled up – or invested in – boutique brands to make up for their own sagging sales. For example, Hormel owns several smaller brands, like Applegate Farms and Justin's; Campbell's owns Bolthouse Farms and Plum Organic baby food; and General Mills has a stake in a slew of startups.

It's natural to want to try something new and different or root for the underdog, but in some cases, smaller brands are just part of one huge corporation – and that's not inherently a bad thing.

[See: The 38 Best Diets Overall.]

Remember the Basics of Good Nutrition

It's easy to be lured by health trends, buzzwords and sleek packaging. But the healthiest foods – fruits, veggies, lean proteins and whole grains – aren't new or sexy, but they are your best approach to achieving a healthful diet.

Copyright 2016 U.S. News & World Report

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