Buying healthy packaged food is easy. Surely, a bowl of chocolate Special K, left, is better than Cocoa Puffs, right, and reduced-fat Jif peanut butter is more sensible than the regular version -- right?
Not necessarily, according to the June issue of ShopSmart, a magazine from the publisher of Consumer Reports.
"Manufacturers of these products might not even specifically claim that their foods are better for you than those they're designed to replace, but product packaging can make you think so, leading you to make not-so-healthy choices," its cover story says.
Here's a look at five of the 11 entries in ShopSmart's survey of "junk health food."
Kellogg's Special K has a reputation as a healthy cereal for grown-ups, but its Chocolatey Delight variation compares poorly with Cocoa Puffs. The kid favorite from General Mills has fewer calories (100 vs. 120 per ¾-cup serving), as well as less fat (1.5 grams vs. 2) and sodium (150 milligrams vs. 180).
Instead: If you have a hankering for chocolate, eat the real thing -- but no more than an ounce a day, and opt for heart-healthy dark.
Sweet-potato fries might seem healthier -- more vitamin A and fiber, for example -- than fries made from regular potatoes. But as shown in a per-serving comparison of McCain Classic Cut frozen fries, they also have more calories (160 vs. 120), fat (7 grams vs. 3) and sugar (6 grams vs. 0).
Instead: Have a baked sweet potato -- add a dash of cinnamon or pumpkin-pie spice for flavor -- if health is your main concern.
Reduced-fat peanut butter seems to make so much sense for health-conscious eaters. After all, it has less fat than the regular version, even if the calories are the same (190 for 2 tablespoons). But a comparison of Jif products shows that reduced-fat peanut butter also has more sugar (4 grams vs. 3) and much more sodium (250 milligrams vs. 150). It also "needs more chemical doctoring to meet taste and texture expectations," according to ShopSmart.
Instead: Eat regular peanut butter in moderation.
Don't be fooled by yogurt-covered treats, whose coating is mostly sugar and unhealthy palm-kernel oil mixed with yogurt powder. A quarter-cup serving of Sunmaid Dark Chocolate Yogurt Raisins, for example, has about the same nutritional stats as Nestlé Milk Chocolate Raisinets.
Instead: Tootsie Roll Midgees have half the fat and can still satisfy your chewy-chocolate craving.
Baked and reduced-fat chips will save calories and fat over regular chips, as a comparison of Kettle products shows, but they're still not diet food. Baked chips also have more processed ingredients, and they simply don't pass the potato-chip crunch test.
Instead: Healthy air-popped popcorn offers a satisfying crunch and tastes great with a spray of olive oil and sea salt or grated parmesan.