Here is the list you've been waiting for. Or maybe you haven't been. But it's here nonetheless.
We find at Quizzify that it is much easier to change employee behavior through knowledge rather than eat-more-vegetables lectures, and through specifics rather than useless generalities like "eat a healthy breakfast." Knowledge and specifics are what this list is all about. (Most major wellness vendors couldn't get specific even if they wanted to, because they service processed food companies. Quizzify refuses to sell to companies whose products are laden with sugar, which allows us to, uh, take appellations and kick posteriors.)
Note that “overrated” doesn’t mean “unhealthy.” Plenty of dietary components are unhealthier than these eight. “Overrated” may be worse than "unhealthy," because an overrated food is one you think is healthy, but is just the opposite. So you eat (or in the case of supplements, consume) much more than you should...and feel really good about yourself as a result.
(1) Kellogg’s Smart Start with antioxidants
An health risk assessment advises you to “eat a healthy breakfast.” But what does that mean? It turns out that even some of the most popular healthy cereals are full of added sugars. Kellogg’s Smart Start with Antioxidants, sounds very healthy and is clearly targeting the “eat a healthy breakfast” segment of the market.
Unfortunately, it is also on Eat This Not That’s list of 20 Worst 'Good-for-You' Cereals.
Like most cereals, a serving is mostly carbs, including 14 grams of added sugar. That's a fair amount of added sugar in an absolute sense...and it's a huge amount for a "heart-healthy" cereal, given that sugar itself contributes to heart disease. Added anti-oxidants are also among the most overrated, non-evidence-based ingredients on earth.
Once again, focus on the word "overrated." Smart Start is a big step up from Captain Crunch, but simply would not qualify as a health food. Not even close.
(2) Granola bars
These are Quizzify's go-to bad boys of overrated processed foods. We feature Quaker's Quinoa Granola Bar on our home page quiz, as an example of how the food companies make the first ingredient sound healthy, and then "sprinkle" the sugars throughout the ingredients label, often using synonyms instead of the word "sugar" itself.
Clif Bars do list a sugar as a first ingredient, but paid extra to source a sugar that sounds healthy:
Curiously, in a pending lawsuit over the sugar content, the Clif Bar people are arguing that everybody knows energy bars are full of sugar...at the same time they are actively disguising it.
Nut-intensive Kind Bars are a nutritional step up from most other energy bars, though part (not all) or the reason they contain less sugar is that they are smaller. An even healthier alternative would be protein bars. Much less sugar and much more protein. Most Americans get plenty of protein already, but substituting it for sugar is a good idea.
Yes, just eating the actual nuts as opposed to a bar with nuts glued together by sugar would be healthier still. But it's unrealistic to expect employees to give up their energy bars for nuts. Would you?
(3) Dark chocolate bars, powder, or anything else
Hats off to The Incidental Economist's Aaron Carroll for this one. It's an 8-minute video but each minute is more compelling than the previous one.
To summarize, the best thing you can say about dark chocolate is that it is not as bad as milk chocolate. It has some health benefits, like fiber, but manufacturers always add -- you guessed it -- sugar. To see why, try eating it without sugar. You might say you'd love to, but the store doesn't sell it. Turns out that's a logical choice by the storekeeper because no one would buy it. For the simple reason that it tastes horrible. Further, dark chocolate's much-touted flavenoids (which have some health benefits) are somewhat destroyed in the processing.
This is not to say you shouldn't eat it. We aren't monks here at Quizzify. We eat sugar. We just know that it's a treat, not a superfood. And as confections go, you could do a lot worse.
(4) Vitamin Water
Here is a generalization that is only slightly exaggerated. With the exception of Vitamin D, you practically have to want to develop a clinically significant vitamin deficiency. Our diet is enriched and fortified with enough vitamins to make that very difficult. Expanding from vitamins to all nutrients, the only one that Americans are routinely deficient in is fiber.
The irony is that VitaminWater contains neither. Fiber is found only in plant foods. Vitamin D is “fat-soluble,” so making it water-friendly is a Herculean task even for the most dedicated food scientist.
What Vitaminwater has in abundance, though, is sugar. In all fairness, not as much per ounce as a Coke, but plenty nonetheless. It comes in a bottle with more ounces, and it’s human nature to drink the contents of whatever the bottle holds. That would be 32 grams of added sugar, more than many of us should safely drink in a day.
As another perspective, the average person is probably 10,000 times more likely to develop diabetes than a clinically significant vitamin deficiency. The bottom line: if you are concerned about vitamins because your diet is unbalanced, take a multivitamin. (We aren’t going to lecture you about the benefits of a balanced diet. Just that if you don’t eat one, compensate with a 10-cent vitamin pill rather than a 20-ounce Vitaminwater.)
Now that it's finally been established that highly processed foods are the culprit of much of our obesity and metabolic syndrome, Gatorade seems prescient to have disappeared its original boast of being “born in the lab" without a trace. With quite literally no natural ingredients other than water, Gatorade is perhaps the ultimate processed food. (Its competing “sports drinks” are no different. We are picking on this one because it’s synonymous with “sports drink.”)
It also checks in with roughly as much sugar as Vitaminwater, the difference being that the remainder consists of electrolytes (basically dissolved minerals) rather than vitamins.
When consumed by serious athletes after serious workouts, these beverages seem to have value in replacing depleted minerals and sugar. (It is tough to say because most research on them is funded, unsurprisingly, by the manufacturers.) However, just like most off-road vehicles are driven mostly on roads, most sports drinks are not consumed during sports.
Specifically, they are consumed by children whose parents quite justifiably don’t want them drinking sugared soda. However, in addition to more sugar than most parents would expect, no one can say with certainty that this creative palette of colors not found in nature is totally harmless.
And, speaking of not found in nature, the abundance of artificial sweeteners in Gatorade Zero should give us all pause as well. The jury is still out on those, but it can be said with near-certainty that consuming a ton of artificial anything is a bad idea.
(6) Honey Nut Cheerios
Like Smart Start, this one isn’t so so terrible, on an absolute scale. It is fortified with vitamins and is a decent-enough source of fiber. But to get on this list you merely have to be “overrated.” Honey Nut Cheerios, the top-selling cereal, is almost a parody of how to get on this list.
Note a few claims on the box:
“Made with real honey” and there is even a bee to prove it. But honey is basically sugar with better PR. And in any case, it’s only the #4 ingredient, with sugar itself checking in at #2 and brown sugar at #5. (As you can see from the quinoa bar above, "sprinkling" the sugars throughout the ingredients label is a classic food company trick.)
"Can help lower cholesterol." Maybe, while raising your overall risk of heart disease.
"Gluten-free." Yes, oats are gluten-free. As are other health foods like hot dogs, potato chips, whiskey and...sugar itself.
Regular Cheerios, by the way, are as "heart-healthy" as name-brand cereals get. They have the oat fiber -- but with far less added sugar. That might explain why Honey Nut outsells the original 2-to-1.
(7) Dietary supplements
If you overfill a bathtub, the extra water ends up making a mess on the floor. DIetary supplements are the same way. If you want to chew on a daily multivitamin, far be it from us to object. And maybe Vitamin D. Of course, folic acid if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant. Heavy drinkers need more B vitamins, vegans need Vitamin B12 etc. But going beyond that, for most people, is overfilling the bathtub.
First, any pill or powder with 1000%+ of the Recommended Daily Allowance of any vitamin or mineral is going to harm far more people than it benefits. Our bodies simply aren't designed to digest and use that much of a micronutrient.
Second, if you haven't heard of an alleged nutrient or supplement, you don't need it. The evidence base for most of them is very thin. There are a few exceptions. Melatonin, for example, does help some people sleep. But even then, it only works for some people. If a little doesn't work for you, more won't, and there could possibly be side effects.
Third, while side effects of melatonin and many other supplements go away if you simply stop taking them, misuse/overuse of over-the-counter supplements send more than 20,000 people a year to the ER, sometimes with things that won't just go away. Calcium supplements can cause kidney stones, for example. The award for the worst? Iron supplements. Toxicity can be acute or chronic.
Fourth, they can interfere with prescription medications. When you provide a list of what you are "on" to a health professional, make sure to include dietary supplements.
Finally, unlike prescription medications, supplements rarely have childproof caps. Yet many supplements taste better than most meds, so kids are at high risk of getting into them. One thing we could do here at Quizzify (I say "could do," because we don't, largely because none of use have small kids at home, and in any event we just thought of it now) is keep old pill containers around and transfer our chewable multivitamins into them.
(8) Honorable mentions
Here is a handy table allowing you to translate phrases on food labels into English: