Don’t Be Fooled—Your ‘Healthy’ Snacks Might Not Be as Healthy as You Think

Don’t Be Fooled—Your ‘Healthy’ Snacks Might Not Be as Healthy as You Think


23 August 2019


As the health craze continues to explode, ‘healthy’ snacks are popping up everywhere—but many companies use these labels to make their products seem healthier than they really are. 

Imagine an enticing box of cookies with the words ‘VEGAN’, ‘GLUTEN-FREE’ or ‘LOW FAT’ splattered across the front, catching your attention. They may be in the healthy section of the supermarket and seem like a better choice than your regular box of cookies, but what the claim on the front doesn’t tell you is how much sugar, additives and low-qualityils there may be in the product.

What you should really be looking at are the details on the nutrition label to understand what the product is actually made of. 

Don’t be fooled—make sure you aren’t falling for these clever marketing tricks!


3 Things to Look Out For on the Labels of ‘Healthy’ Snacks

Check the length of the ingredient list

A long list of ingredients usually indicates one thing—additives, preservatives and other processed ingredients used to enhance flavour, colour, texture or extend shelf life. While these ingredients may not be harmful in small doses, if you’re consuming them on the regular think about how they may build up and have an accumulated effect in the long run. If you’re opting for healthier snacks, chances are these are also ingredients you’re already trying to avoid!

Look out for:

  • E numbers: E numbers replace the names of chemicals or particular food additives in ingredient lists. These can be artificial colouring, flavouring, preservatives and sulfates amongst other things. If the ingredient list contains a lot of unrecognisable words that are hard to pronounce, you might want to steer clear of it.

  • Carrageenan: Commonly used in dairy alternative products like vegan milks, cheeses and yoghurts to help with texture, carrageenan is derived from seaweed making it seem like a harmless ingredient. But studies have shown that in the long term, carrageenan may affect gut permeability and  have carcinogenic effects. Try to go for carrageenan-free products.

  • Vitamin D2: Like carrageenan, Vitamin D2 is commonly found in dairy alternatives—and being a vitamin, may appear as a healthy addition to any ingredient list. However, there is a fine line between D2 being an effective source of vitamin D and it being toxic when it comes to dosage. Vitamin D toxicity can affect your bones and organs and lead to symptoms such as fatigue amongst other side-effects. Cheaper dairy-free products usually contain Vitamin D2 but there are also more options coming up without.

Keep an eye out for added sugars

For the longest time fat has gotten the blame for weight gain, but we’ve recently begun to understand that it may have been all part of deep-rooted strategies to distract consumers from the real issue: sugar. Diabetes is a worldwide epidemic, with Malaysia itself having 3.6 million people suffering from the disease—one of the highest rates in the world and the highest in Asia.

Added sugars are one of the biggest culprits in processed foods making us trip up. Sugar already naturally occurs in fruit, dairy and starches like white rice, so it’s important to be wary of added sugars that can lead to overconsumption. Keep in mind the recommended daily added sugar limit for women is just 6 tsp (25g), some products are loaded with way more than this per serving.

Let’s face it, sugar makes food tasty and addictive, so food manufacturers have clever ways of sneaking it into their products, even some healthy favourites such as:

  • Low/no fat products: when the fat is removed, sugar is added to stabilise the product. These products are usually higher in sugar than the full-fat version.

  • Salad dressings and sauces: we all think salads are healthy, but before you drown it in your favourite store-bought dressing, check the label. This goes for other sauces too such as teriyaki sauce, sweet chilli, ketchup etc. 

  • Granola, muesli and other cereals: you don’t want to be spiking your blood sugar levels first thing in the morning and breakfast cereals are often loaded with added sugar, even the ones that may look healthy, like granola and muesli.

  • Energy and cereal bars

  • Yoghurt and yoghurt drinks

  • Fruit juices, smoothies, teas and other processed beverages

  • Some dried fruit

  • Bread

Look out for:

  • The order of ingredients listed: Ingredients are listed in order of how much of it there in the product, with the highest being first. If sugar (or a variation of sugar) is one of the first 4 ingredients listed, you’ll know the product is mostly made up of that.
  • Splitting sugar into multiple ingredients: Food manufacturers often break down sugar into multiple ingredients listed on the label. There are 61 different names for sugar, so if several of these are appearing, alarm bells should be ringing:

    • Anything with sugar eg. brown sugar, raw cane sugar, beet sugar

    • Molasses or anything with molasses

    • Maltodextrin

    • Barley malt

    • Caramel

    • Ethyl maltol

    • Ingredients ending in -ose (eg. dextrose, fructose, glucose, maltose, sucrose)

    • Ingredients ending in - syrup (eg. rice syrup, malt syrup, high fructose corn syrup)

Familiarise yourself with the types of oils used

While healthy fats such as coconut, olive, avocado and flax oil are a great addition to a well-balanced diet, most processed foods aren’t made with these, but with low-quality refined-seed and vegetable oils such as sunflower, soy, corn, vegetable, canola, rapeseed and hydrogenated oils.

Because these lower quality oils are cheaper, they can help food manufacturers cut costs, but they are not something we want to be consuming regularly. These oils are highly refined and often go through processes of high heat (which oxidises the oils), bleaching, deodorising, chemical treatment and hydrogenation (once they are hydrogenated, they become trans fats). Vegetable oils also contain excessive amounts of Omega-6 fatty acids, which is something most of us already consume too much of, and should aim to reduce as it can drive inflammation and lead to diseases in the long run. 

Look out for:

  • Vegetable oil (even if it’s organic)

  • Soybean oil 

  • Corn oil 

  • Canola oil 

  • Grape Seed oil 

  • Hydrogenated oils (anything labelled refined, hydrogenated, partially-hydrogenated)

  • Margarine

Foods like ‘healthy’ cereals, cookies, biscuits, chips, sauces, frozen foods (eg. gluten-free/vegan burgers) often contain these oils.

Picking up a ‘healthy’ snack at the supermarket may be convenient, but just remember those health claims printed on the front may be misleading. ‘Vegan’ just means there are no animal products in it. ‘Gluten-free’ means the product doesn’t contain any gluten. ‘Low fat’ means it may have had fat removed or reduced, but with other sugars and stabilisers added in. For a better understanding of the product, flip it over and read the nutritional details.

Try to go for foods that come in natural form over something that has been processed, eg. an apple rather than an apple flavoured granola bar. And if you’re getting something packaged, check the ingredient list—the shorter, the better (and made with ingredients you can actually pronounce!) 

Homemade is always best because you know exactly what ingredients you’re using, so why not try making some of your own healthy snacks at home instead! Here are a few easy ones to get you started: