Most of your pantry is probably stocked with the essentials — anything you might need to toss together a semi-healthy meal at the last minute. Unfortunately, many of the regular staples on those shelves aren’t nearly as healthy as you think.
For starters, it’s important to make sure you’re choosing foods that aren’t loaded with added sugars, unhealthy grains, and more sodium than you need in a single snack. These foods are all pretty bad options — but most of them have much healthier alternatives that aren’t too difficult to find.
1. Flavored almonds
Not all nuts are as good for you as they appear. One ounce of Blue Diamond toasted coconut almonds has only 8 grams of carbohydrates. However, these processed, packaged almonds come with a handful of different types of sugars to give them their unique flavor. Plain almonds, on the other hand, are an excellent source of healthy fats, protein, and fiber. Stick with standard almonds for all their many health benefits and to avoid the unnecessary processed drawbacks.
2. Trail mix
Need a healthy snack for the road? Trail mix can be a healthy option to satisfy your hunger on the go. However, many trail mix brands are made up of more than just nuts. Dried fruit, a common staple in store-bought trail mix, is often high in sugar and loaded with empty calories. M&Ms and other chocolate- or yogurt-covered pieces are also common additives, full of their own unhealthy ingredients. You can easily create your own healthy trail mix by combining nuts and other ingredients into a bowl at home.
The first rule when it comes to ingredient lists on food labels is that the ingredient used the most is always listed first. In the case of Kraft lime-flavored Jell-O, the first ingredient is — can you guess? — sugar. Other noteworthy ingredients include natural and artificial flavors, as well as BHA, which Live Science notes is a preservative also found in potato chips and butter. Lime jello also contains yellow dye 5, another controversial food additive. You can save yourself a lot of unnecessary additives just by not eating it ever again.
4. White bread
Not all bread is bad for you, but white bread should be banned. In addition to being made with refined grains, Livestrong.com notes white bread is high on the glycemic index — a measure of how severely a food can affect your blood sugar. There are only about 15 grams of carbohydrates per slice of white bread, but this includes a very small amount of fiber. Foods high on the glycemic index can cause a spike in your blood sugar. These foods also tend to increase your cravings for more simple sugars. Choose breads made with whole grains, which are made up of complex carbs filled with fiber.
5. Potato chips
Potato chips aren’t healthy just because they’re made from potatoes. While they might start out as perfectly harmless tubers, chips are usually deep-fried in oil to make them crispy. Most oils used for frying don’t do anything good for your health, either. In fact, Livestrong.com says eating too many fried foods can increase your risk for a number of life-threatening diseases. If you want to make chips healthier, bake or grill thinly sliced potatoes on your own at home.
6. Flavored rice cakes
Rice tastes better in cake form, at least it seems that way. After all, a plain rice cake has 7 grams of carbohydrates and barely any fat or sodium. However, reach for a white cheddar snack cake, and you’ll consume over 100 milligrams of sodium per piece. Plain rice cakes have three ingredients: brown rice, water, and salt. Adding more flavors also adds more additives in processing. Stick with plain or lightly salted rice cakes.
7. Sugar-free baked goods
Do you ever wonder what’s in your sugar-free cupcakes? Fake sugar. According to Mayo Clinic, artificial sweeteners are widely used in processed foods to make them “sugar free.” Just because a food doesn’t have sugar in the more traditional sense doesn’t mean it doesn’t have other food additives that are potentially just as harmful. Homemade baked goods are always the best option if you want to cut down on carbs and added sugars. You can substitute sugar in baking with ingredients like honey, applesauce, cinnamon, and even yacon syrup.
8. Breakfast cereal
Think your “boring” cereal is safe? Sorry — your beloved Cheerios, only 21 grams of carbohydrates per cup, still have ingredients like cornstarch — a highly processed, not very nutritious carb — and added sugar. Studies suggest eating too much added sugar can increase your risk for a handful of diseases like heart disease and type-2 diabetes. Therefore, eating cereal every morning isn’t the best idea. Instead, try an alternative like oatmeal. You can also opt for plain Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and homemade granola instead of cereal with milk.
Pickles are vegetables, so that makes them healthy, right? One medium-size pickle only has 7 calories, and less than 2 grams of carbohydrates. However, according to PBS Food, pickles are cucumbers soaked in a solution called brine, a sodium-saturated mixture. Pickles may have very few calories, almost no fat, and minimal carbs, but there’s some devastating news about that medium pickle you ordered with your sandwich: it has more than 700 milligrams of sodium. That’s over 30% of the salt you’re supposed to eat in a day, just from one pickle. You’re much better off putting fresh cucumbers on your sandwich.
10. Most brands of peanut butter
According to the nutrition label, 2 tablespoons of smooth peanut butter only has 8 grams of carbs, and less than 200 calories. But the ingredient list reveals more questionable additives, including several different types of sugar — such as fully hydrogenated vegetable oils. These oils aren’t as harmful as partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats), but in all honesty, you’re basically eating a container of roasted peanuts mixed with saturated fat, sugar, and salt. Organic nut butters and homemade peanut butter are much better options if you’re desperately craving a PB&J.
11. White rice
When building the perfect burrito bowl, leave white rice off the table. According to the Whole Grains Council, refined grains often lack key nutrients, as they are removed during processing. White rice has 23 grams of carbs per ½ cup, but only 2 grams of protein and very small traces of B vitamins. Brown rice, on the other hand, has the same amount of carbs, but plenty of vitamin B6, iron, and magnesium. Always choose wild or brown rice; it’s much more nutritious and includes a variety of vitamins and minerals missing in white rice.
12. Store-bought granola
Granola, a mixture of oats, nuts and a variety of sweeteners like honey, is problematic for the same reason breakfast cereal falls short of expectations. A New York Times survey found that a majority of Americans were confident that granola is a healthy food, conversely the majority of nutrition experts disagreed. While homemade granola can be a healthy, sweet snack or breakfast staple, packaged granola often has sugar and other ingredients added to it to “improve” its texture and taste. As with most foods on this list, homemade is your best choice if you’re a granola junkie.
13. Flavored yogurt
Love your flavored yogurt a little too much? An individual container of Dannon mixed berry yogurt contains 25 carbs — but 21 grams of that comes from sugar. This yogurt is packed with additives and “natural flavors” (whatever that means). This isn’t much better than a number of other brands of flavored yogurt sitting on grocery store shelves. Skip the flavored stuff and start with plain Greek yogurt and add in your own fresh fruit, you get the same great taste and all the benefits of fruit and yogurt without all the added sugars.
14. White pasta
White bread, white rice — notice a trend here? Refined grains aren’t the go-to staple you want when choosing low-carb foods. That’s not the only thing that makes white pasta such a traumatic choice. At 23 grams of carbohydrates per ½ cup serving, it has less than 2 grams of fiber. However, whole-wheat pasta has twice the amount of fiber and even fewer carbs per ½ cup than white pasta. Foods higher in fiber are better for your digestive health.
15. American cheese
Cheese individually wrapped for your convenience probably isn’t worth the time it saves you in the kitchen. There’s a carb per slice of bright, melty American cheese, in addition to about 30% of your daily calcium needs. That’s about where the benefits run out. Here’s a secret: American cheese actually isn’t cheese. According to Kraft’s website, it’s a little bit of cheese, and a lot of salt and preservatives. When you can, buy fresh cheese. It doesn’t melt the same way as individual slices of processed cheeses, but honestly, cheese isn’t supposed to.