You buy: Stick margarine.
You believe: No cholesterol, and lower in saturated fat than butter.
The hidden truth: The process of turning liquid oils into solid stick margarine--known as hydrogenation or partial hydrogenation--results in high levels of trans fat. Trans fat has been shown to be just as damaging to your arteries and heart as saturated fat, and it may be even worse on your cholesterol levels, says Barke.
A better bet: Use soft margarine from a tub, recommends Barke. The softer the better, such as Fleischmann's Light Margarine. Better yet, just use canola or olive oil.
You buy: Low-fat peanut butter.
You believe: A great source of low-fat protein.
The hidden truth: The fat in peanut butter is considered a "good" fat, so you're actually doing your body a disservice by opting for low-fat PB over the standard kind. And since sugars are added to low-fat peanut butter to enhance taste, it contains the same number of calories per serving as regular. Your biggest concern is heart-harming trans fats that are added by manufacturers in the form of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, says Barke.
A better bet: All-natural peanut butter. Barke recommends Laura Scudder's. You can reduce the fat even more by pouring off some of the oil that naturally accumulates at the top of the jar.
You buy: A smoothie.
You believe: Healthy afternoon pickup.
The hidden truth: At 500 to 600 calories, commercial smoothies are "a really high-calorie snack," says Eastwood. And don't count on one to boost your energy for long: "Your body will absorb all of the simple sugar in the fruit quickly and compensate with an insulin response, causing a lower blood-sugar level than you had before you drank the smoothie."
A better bet: Have whole fruit and a little peanut butter for a snack that digests more slowly. If you indulge in a smoothie, Eastwood recommends adding protein to allow more gradual absorption of the sugar. Lies on the Label
Despite more stringent requirements implemented over the years, food manufacturers are still largely free to make misleading label claims. Watch out for these:
- Lean means something entirely different to the meat industry than it does to you. Ground beef can be labeled "lean" as long as it contains no more than 22.5% fat by weight, not calories. Even 85%-lean hamburger meat has 15 grams of fat in a three-ounce cooked patty. Eat a couple of tiny patties, and you've sucked down one-half of your allotted fat intake for the day. To be called lean, meats other than ground beef must contain no more than 10% fat by weight.
- Natural means virtually nothing, as the Federal Drug Administration has never formally defined it. Even if a food's ingredients were natural to begin with, they may undergo so much processing that by the time they reach your plate, they're about as natural as Shania Twain's Super Bowl vocal track.
- Fresh does not mean that after being harvested the food is free of pesticides, acids, chlorine solutions, waxes, or "nonthermal technologies" such as irradiation or ultrahigh-pressure treatment. Fresh frozen also means little, except that the food wasn't deteriorated before it was frozen.
- Fat-free doesn't mean a food is completely devoid of fat; it simply indicates that there's less than a gram of fat in a single serving. The result: Eating five "fat-free" cookies when the serving size equals one cookie could net you well over four grams of fat.
- Smart has no boundaries. It's often used to imply that a food is low in fat or calories.