Junk Food in Disguise

Just because it’s all-natural doesn’t make it good for you. How to shop the all-natural grocery store.

Monica Reinagel, M.S.,L.D./N
4-minute read
Episode #63

How to Shop at Healthy Food Stores

Don’t get me wrong; I shop in these stores, too. I like to shop where more of the food is organic, humanely raised, and free of genetically modified organisms. I like that I can find gluten-free pasta when my friend Julia comes for dinner and that the bacon contains no nitrates. I’m just saying that you still have to pay attention and make smart choices--even when you shop in “virtuous” food stores.

First, remember that chips, crackers, cookies, ice cream, and other snacks and treats are still extras--even when they contain goji berries or air-dried sea salt. They may be free of preservatives or other scary things but they’re still not contributing much to the nutritional quality of your diet and they can easily displace other, healthier foods.

These foods shouldn’t be placed into your shopping cart--or your mouth--until you’ve covered the basics like fruits, vegetables, and protein foods. As a general rule, extras shouldn’t make up more than about 10-15% of your total calories. In practical terms, that means maybe one extra for every five servings of vegetables--not the other way around.

You Still Need to Read Labels

Secondly, don’t let yourself be so dazzled by the presence of oat bran or the absence of MSG that you overlook the basics. Check the nutrition facts label to see how much sodium is in that spinach-powdered popcorn, or how much fat is in that preservative-free cheese cake, or how much sugar is in the whole-grain granola.

The nutrition facts label not only tells you how many grams of this or that a food contains but also tells you what percentage of the typical recommended intake that represents. That is helpful because most people don’t have all the recommendations memorized. You might not be sure whether 1600 mg of sodium is a lot or a little, but when you see that one serving of the vegan kung-pao tofu contains 66% of the entire day’s sodium allowance, you know it’s a pretty hefty dose.

No matter how virtuous the food seems to be, the numbers still need to add up. I hope that answers your question, Joy, or at least gives you some ideas on how to weigh the pros and cons of those honey-roasted sunflower seeds and flaxseed corn chips--and some help judging how they fit into a healthy diet.

More Nutrition Diva on Junk Food and Snacks

Is a bagel really worse than a doughnut?

I recently answered a reader's question about bubble teas; find my response as to whether or not they are healthy by clicking here

I also address concerns over microwave popcorn in another Quick Tip.


You can also email me at nutrition@quickanddirtytips.com or stop by my Nutrition Diva Facebook Page. I am also on Twitter.  I answer a lot of listener questions in my weekly email tips, so if you’ve already sent a question my way, be sure you’re signed up to receive that.

Have a great day and eat something good for me!


Health Halo can Hide Calories (John Tierney for the New York Times)

The Shocking Truth about Many “Healthy” Diets (NutritionData Blog)

Don’t let the Health Halo Fool You (NutritionData Blog)