15 'healthy' products you've been tricked into buying that aren't actually that great

4 Healthy Foods That Aren't Actually Good For You

Most Americans say they want to eat healthier. It's a beautiful (and fairly new) thing.

The problem is that most of us don't know how.

But the next time you take a stroll down your grocery's "health foods" aisle, take note: Most of what you're looking at likely doesn't belong there.

Here are some of the most egregiously unhealthy products we've been tricked into buying:

Peanut butter and jelly

Peanut Butter and Jelly SandwichPhoto via Getty

The problem: The PB&J is a ubiquitous lunch item among American kids (there's a song about it, folks), but it's actually a less-healthy alternative to sandwiches made with hummus or lean meats.

Peanut butter is high in fat; jelly is high in sugar. Slap those ingredients between two slices of white bread and you've got a sandwich that packs 20 grams of sugar, 14 g fat (3.5 g saturated) and 400 calories.

Who's to blame: World War I rations officers, Welch's (who came out with Grapelade), and peanut companies that latched onto it.

How it happened The Great Depression popularized peanut butter on bread as a cheaper-than-meat substitute for protein. When it was combined with Welch's Grapelade — one of the first iterations of jelly — in the rations of WWI soldiers in the US, the PB&J became an official hit.


Cincinnati Bengals v San Francisco 49ersPhoto via Getty

The problem: We've been wrongly convinced that we need sugar water to prepare and refuel after a hot date with the gym. In reality, exercise scientists recommend drinking water and eating or drinking 20 grams of protein, since studies suggest it helps recondition and build muscles.

Who's to blame: Soda companies: Pepsi owns Gatorade; Coke owns Powerade.

How it happened: Gatorade's 1990's "Is it in you?" black-and-white ads featured star athletes like Mia Hamm and Michael Jordan, who are shown literally sweating out the color of the Gatorade they were drinking. More recently, the company has come out with a line-up of "G-series" post- and pre-workout drinks that are supposedly designed to help you either prepare or cool down from a workout.


Bowl of cereal.Photo via Getty

The problem: Bowls of sugar-laden, empty carbs got swapped for protein-rich components of the "balanced breakfast." A cup of Reese's Puffs, for example, has 160 calories, 4 grams of fat (1g saturated), 13g of sugar, 29g of carbs and >3g of protein. A high-sugar, low-protein diet can increase hunger pangs and mood swings and leave you with low energy. Not exactly the best way to start the school day.

Who's to blame: Cereal companies

How it happened: As Jaya Saxena writes for Serious Eats, "Cereal's position as America's default breakfast food is a remarkable feat, not of flavor or culture, but of marketing and packaging design."

It all started, Saxena writes, with Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, manager of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a Seventh-Day Adventist health resort advertised as a place where upper-middle class Americans could go for a health tune-up. Kellogg, a vegetarian, advocated turning away from meat in favor of yogurt, nuts, and grains. Then in 1895, C.W. Post, a former Battle Creek patient, founded his own cereal company with Postum, a "cereal beverage intended to replace coffee," as its poster product.

Fruit smoothies

PepsiCo Inc. Products Ahead Of Earning FiguresPhoto via Getty

The problem: Just because they pack lots of fruit, bottled smoothies and those sold at places like Jamba Juice are not necessarily healthy. But most are also incredibly high in sugar and calories. A 15-oz bottle of Mighty Mango flavored Naked Juice has 290 calories, 68g of carbs, and a whopping 57g of sugar (a 16-oz bottle of Coke has 44g of sugar).

Who's to blame: Bottled juice and smoothie companies that capitalize on consumers' desire for fresh, healthy foods.

How it happened: The first blender was invented in the late '30s, and Steve Kuhnau, who was allegedly experimenting with blending fruits and veggies to combat some of his own allergies and health problems, founded the first Smoothie King restaurant in Louisiana in 1973.

Coconut water

Inside A Tesco Plc Supermarket As Shoppers Prepare For ChristmasPhoto via Getty

The problem: We've been led to believe this $4-per-serving beverage is a panacea for everything from post-workout dehydration to cancer.

Who's to blame: Zico, VitaCoco, ONE

How it happened: Since taking off globally in the mid-2000s, the coconut water business has mushroomed into a $400 million dollar industry dominated by just 3 giant companies. Ads featuring glowing celebrities like Rihanna relaxing on beaches helped push the trend into high-gear.


Glass pitcher of milk standing on grass close upPhoto via Getty

The problem: We were led to believe we need to drink milk to get calcium for strong bones, especially at a young age. In reality, there are a ton of veggies that are rich in calcium, including kale, collard greens, spinach, and peppers, just to name a few.

Who's to blame: The California dairy industry

How it happened: In 1993, California hired advertising consultant Jeff Manning to boost lagging dairy sales. He brought on ad agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, which used its $23 million budget to create "got milk?", a campaign that began with the idea that people only want milk when they run out. Later versions of the ads emphasized its importance for health, like the above ad featuring actor Frankie Muniz with the text: "Want strong kids?"


Person Pouring Liquid In Container
Photo via Getty

The problem: Americans have been led to believe that gargling with mouthwash is a better alternative to flossing; we spent $1.4 billion on mouthwash in 2014.

Who's to blame: Listerine

How it happened: For years, mouthwash company Listerine claimed its products worked just as well as flossing. Those claims were false, as revealed in a 2004 lawsuit against the company for false advertising.

On 15 of their 24 products, Listerine said it was "as effective as floss when used regularly." The claim was based on two studies by the American Dental Association, which was funded by the maker of mouthwash, Pfizer. In 2005, New York judge Denny Chin ordered a stop to the ads, noting substantial evidence that no amount of mouthwash could replace daily flossing.

ConsumerAffairs.com reports that the class action suit was thrown out in March 2010, but only because the claim was "over-broad" and that the majority of the population never encountered the advertisements due to a short shelf-life.

Bottled water

Rows of water bottles isolated on white backgroundPhoto via Shutterstock

The problem: We've been deceived into thinking thatbottled water is cleaner and healthier than tap. Globally, we spend more than US $100 billion on the bottled (yet otherwise freely available) good every year.

Who's to blame: Soda companies: Pepsi makes Aquafina, Nestle makes Dasani, and Coca-Cola makes Smart Water.

How it happened: AuthorElizabeth Royte writes in her book, "Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought it" that 92% of the nation's 53,000 local water systems meet or exceed federal safety standards and is at least as clean and often cleaner than bottled water.

So why has bottled water become so large that sales surpass beer and milk in the United States? Royte calls the phenomenon one of the "greatest marketing coups of the 21st century."

Orange juice

orange juice.Photo via Shutterstock

The problem: Orange juice has become a required aspect of the American breakfast. In reality, juicing fruits removes all of their fiber, the key ingredient that keeps you feeling full and satisfied until your next meal. The result: mostly just sugar and water. And a high-sugar, low-protein diet can increase hunger pangs and mood swings and leave you with low energy.

Who's to blame: Sunkist, Tropicana, and the National Fruit Growers Exchange

How it happened: HistorianHarvey Levenstein writes in his book "Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat," that biochemist Elmer McCollum, who helped discover vitamins A, B, and D and warned against vitamin-deficient diets in the 1920s, provided ample material for orange growers, whose sales at the time were sagging. Under the Sunkist brand, the California Fruit Growers Exchange created a campaign focused on drinking orange juice to get these vitamins in an easy, tasty way.

Gluten-free products

Photo via Shutterstock

The problem: A lot of people think that gluten — a protein composite found in wheat, barley, and other grains that breads their chewiness — is bad for them, and that anything with a "gluten-free" label is, well, not. In reality, unless you're one of the 1% of Americans who suffer from celiac disease, eating gluten probably won't have any negative effects on you.

Who's to blame: Consumers, gluten-free food makers, and food makers who responded to the trend by slapping "gluten-free" labels on foods that didn't have gluten to begin with.

How it happened: While the origins of the gluten-free craze remain disputed (it's still early days), it's been largely consumer-driven, Saint Joseph's University marketing professor John Lang wrote in the New York Times. "Whether consumers' reasons for demanding more gluten-free products are medically or nutritionally justified doesn't really matter; simply put, more consumers want more of these products," said Lang.

By 2020, the gluten-free market is projected to be valued at close to $24 billion.

Low-fat everything

YogurtPhoto via Shutterstock

The problem: We've been led to believe low-fat products will lead to increased overall health and weight loss. An 8-year trial involving almost 50,000 women suggested that's highly unlikely: When roughly half of them went on a low-fat diet, they didn't lower their risk of breast cancer, colorectal cancer, or heart disease. Plus, they didn't lose much weight, if any.

Who's to blame: The sugar industry. Sweet snack and candy makers quickly realized they could slap the "low-fat" or "fat-free" label on everything from yogurt to Twizzlers and see a boost in sales.

How it happened: Headlines of the '80s and '90s were filled with missives that fat was killing us. Ironically enough, many food makers began replacing all this fat with another ingredient: sugar. New recommendations show that healthy fats, like those from nuts, fish, and avocados, are actually good for you in moderation! So add them back into your diet if you haven't already.


Grilled steak, French fries and vegetablesPhoto via Shutterstock

The problem: We've been told that beef, which is high in fat and has been implicated in contributing to the California drought because of its large impact on land and water resources, is a go-to source of protein.

Who's to blame: The National Beef Board

How it happened: The Beef Checkoff Program, a research- and advertising-funding pool created by the National Beef Board to stimulate beef sales in the US, came up with the "Beef: It's What's For Dinner" campaign in 1992. The campaign featured TV, radio, and magazine ads with actor Robert Mitchum as the narrator, as well as catchy Western music from the "Rodeo" suite by Aaron Copland.

The initial campaign ran for a year and a half and cost $42 million. Today, the program still owns and operates beefitswhatsfordinner.com, which features recipes and guides to picking out a cut of meat.


Handful of GranolaPhoto via Getty

The problem: We associate anything crunchy and sold in bags in the "health foods" aisle with nature-loving hikers — people who get lots of exercise and keep their bodies lean and healthy. But granola is no health product: In fact, it's packed with sugar and calories — a cup contains ~600 calories, or the same amount as 2 turkey-and-cheese sandwiches or about 4 cereal bars.

Who's to blame: The first "corporate granola," according to a 1978 Rolling Stone article, was Heartland Natural Cereal. Its roots reach back to the '60s, when Seventh Day Adventist Wayne Schlotthauer, who'd been operating the world's largest granola factory in California using a recipe his grandma had brought over from Germany, was approached by Layton Gentry, who sold him the West Coast rights to the granola recipe for $18,000.

How it happened: Luckily for Schlotthauer and Gentry (who was named "Johnny Granola-Seed" by TIME), the '60s saw a resurgence in health-conscious eating habits and a desire to return to an "all-natural" lifestyle. It was the perfect environment for granola to blossom.


Multivitamin Multivitamins vitamins close nobody pills medication consumer reports on MultivitaminsPhoto via AOL

The problem: Close to half of American adults take vitamins every day. Yet decades' worth of research hasn't found any justification for our pill-popping habit. (That isn't to say we don't need small amounts of vitamins to survive — without vitamins like A, C, and E, for example, we have a hard time turning food into energy and can develop conditions like rickets or scurvy. Here's the thing: Research shows we get more than enough of these substances from what we eat, so no need for a pill!)

Who's to blame: Fruit juice manufacturers and vitamin manufacturers

How it happened: Biochemist Elmer McCollum warned against vitamin-deficient diets in back the 1920s, and juice companies as well as vitamin manufacturers hopped on the bandwagon to peddle their products.

Egg substitutes

How to make meringue: egg whites whipped to soft peaks and stiff peaks with sugarPhoto via AOL

The problem: For decades, we've been led to believe eggs are bad for us because they're packed with cholesterol. Flavorless egg substitutes ranging from Egg Beaters to pre-blended cartons of egg whites packed grocery store shelves in the '90s and early '00s. As it turns out, the cholesterol in eggs doesn't significantly raise blood cholesterol for the vast majority of us.

Who's to blame: US Dietary Guidelines, which for decades urged Americans to avoid eggs and strictly limit their intake of cholesterol from food.

How it happened: One odd reason that may have informed the original US Dietary Guidelines is the strange practice of studying cholesterol in rabbits, which are (surprise!) not humans. They're herbivores who don't eat animals or animal products. Regardless, at least one prominent researcher still extrapolated their rabbit results to people, Tech Insider reports.

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