With the reams of health advice that we are bombarded with on a daily basis, it can be hard to sort fact from fiction. Whether you’re trying to lose weight, ramp up your immune system, or simply trying to be healthier, there’s no shortage of products claiming to help you meet your goal. But can you believe the hype?


What to watch out for on food labels

If you want to know more about what you’re eating, then food labels are a good place to start. All claims made on food labels must comply with strict legislation, but unfortunately they don’t tell the whole story. For instance, a food labelled as ‘low fat’ often contains lots of sugar and additives.

The ingredients list on the back of pack is well worth a look, but even that isn’t straightforward. Ingredients are listed in descending order of weight, so if sugar is near the top of the list, that tells you sugar is one of the main ingredients. But food manufacturers often use several alternative forms of sugarin smaller amounts to sweeten food, so they appear among the lesser ingredients on the label. Watch out for high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, agave syrup, coconut blossom nectar, dextrose, carob syrup and molasses – these are all just sugar by a different name.

Reduced calorie/fat/sugar claims can also be misleading. What the prefix ‘reduced’ means legally is that the food in question must contain 30 per cent fewer calories or 30 per cent less fat or sugar than a similar product. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the food in question in actually low in calories, fat or sugar. For example, a ‘light’ version of a brand of digestive biscuits could have 30 per cent less sugar than regular digestives, yet contain more fat and only three fewer calories!

Claims like ‘low carb’, ‘superfood’ and ‘low GI’ are not permitted in nutrition claims, but this doesn’t stop some manufacturers from using them generally.
Find out more about nutrition claims and what they mean.

More like this

10 foods that seem more healthy than they are:

  • Gluten-free foods
  • Plant-based meat alternatives
  • Manuka honey
  • Organic plant-based milk substitutes
  • Superfoods
  • Coconut blossom sugar
  • Cereal bars
  • Energy drinks
  • Fruit leather
  • Vegetable crisps

1. Gluten-free foods

Unless you suffer from coeliac disease or gluten intolerance there is no benefit in buying these products. In fact, there are good reasons why you shouldn’t. One study found that gluten-free foods were 159% more expensive and most also contained more fat, salt and sugar than their gluten-containing counterparts.

2. Plant-based ‘meat’ alternatives

While meat-free burgers and sausages may be better for the environment, they are not always better for your health. Some meat alternatives are ultra processed, containing a lengthy list of additives including flavour enhancers, monosodium glutamate and high levels of salt to make them taste like meat. Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are believed to be linked with many health problems and obesity.

3. Manuka honey

Honey dipper with a drizzle of honey dripping down

Manuka honey can be up to 60 times more expensive than regular honey – so is it worth the outlay? Part of the reason for the eyewatering price tag is that it’s only grown in specific locations in New Zealand; another is the myriad health claims attributed to manuka. While most types of honey have antibacterial properties, manuka honey contains an ingredient not found in other types of honey – the unique manuka factor (UMF) – which has specific antimicrobial properties. While there are studies confirming that it can be beneficial when used externally to treat wounds, many of the other claims lack sufficient evidence and and health professionals remain sceptical that its reputation as a health food is justified.

4. Organic plant-based milk substitutes

For a long time the only alternative to dairy was soya milk – but in recent years the non-dairy milk market has exploded. While they may be a better choice for the health of our planet, making the switch from dairy to a plant-based alternative may not be the right choice for your body, especially if you opt for organic. Cow’s milk provides several important nutrients (such as protein, calcium, vitamin B12 and iodine). Some non-dairy milks are fortified with calcium, B12 and iodine but, by law, organic products are not permitted to be fortified. While it‘s possible to find these nutrients in other foods, you could still be missing out – especially on iodine which is not found in a wide range of foods.

5. Superfoods

While the idea of superfoods is appealing, the truth is the term is simply a marketing invention. Whether designed to boost sales or as buzz word used by media for a news story, there is no legal or scientific definition for the term ‘superfood’. Rather than falling for the hype, make sure your diet includes a variety of fruit and veg, fermented foods, healthy fats and wholegrain carbs and you’ll be getting all the ‘superfoods’ you need without the price tag.

6. Coconut blossom sugar

Made from coconut palm sap, it contains a small amount of minerals, antioxidants and fibre and has a lower glycaemic index (GI) than regular sugar, which is why advocates claim it is healthy. But the truth is, the nutrients it contains can be found easily and in larger amounts in other, more healthy foods. Bearing in mind the price, it’s no better for you than regular sugar.

7. Some cereal bars

Two cereal bars with oats and fruit

Despite their wholesome ‘good-for-you’ image, cereal bars are not always what they seem – some contain as much sugar as a chocolate bar. The cereal bar market is incredibly diverse and if ever there was a case for taking a few minutes to read the nutrition information on the label, this is time to do so.

8. Energy drinks

Useful? Yes, for athletes and maybe, occasionally, to provide a quick energy boost for rest of us. But healthy? No way! A combination of sugar and caffeine, some energy drinks also contain ingredients like taurine, guarana, ginseng and B vitamins. A 500ml bottle can contain the equivalent of 13 sugar cubes – although sugar-free options, which use artificial sweeteners rather than sugar, are available.

The other issue is the caffeine content. Many health professionals are concerned about the regular use of these drinks, particularly by young people and adolescents. The British Dietetic Association says: "There is a growing amount of evidence to demonstrate that the consumption of energy drink is detrimental to both the physical and mental wellbeing of young people."

9. Fruit leather

Made from dried puréed fruit, these snacks are marketed as healthy alternatives to confectionery and lunch box snacks for kids. Despite making claims such as ‘no added sugar’, ‘100 per cent natural’, or ‘one of your five-a-day’, the Consumers Association reported that many of these snacks contain large amounts of free sugars, the type of sugar which we should be eating less of. According to Public Health England, sugar from fruit and vegetables which have been juiced or puréed (or where the structure has otherwise been broken down) is classed as ‘free sugars’. The other problem is they stick to the teeth which increases the risk of tooth decay. The bottom line is that there are much healthier ways to eat fruit.

10. Vegetable crisps

Despite their health halo, vegetable crisps are no better for you than regular potato crisps. They often contain more calories, fat and salt than regular crisps. Although they do contain more fibre than potato crisps, a 30g serving provides less than 10 per cent of the recommended daily amount, and there are certainly more healthy options for boosting your fibre.

Further reading

Now you know which foods to watch out for, read more about what makes a healthy diet.

Good Food's guide to healthy eating

What to eat for good health

8 ways to cut down on sugar

How much fat should I eat a day?

Cheap and healthy family meal recipes


All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Comments, questions and tips

Choose the type of message you'd like to post

Choose the type of message you'd like to post