Healthy snacks are harder to find than ever these days, especially with the influx of playfully worded packaged foods claiming to have less sugar, fat, sodium, and whatever else you’d prefer to avoid. But the reality is healthy should mean lots of fiber, healthy fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals. So, if calorie counting is how you determine what to eat, you might be barking up the wrong nutrition tree, especially when it comes to dessert.
“A food can be rich in calories, but also packed full of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients,” Erin Palinski-Wade, R.D., author of Belly Fat for Dummies, and blogger at Mommyhood Bytes, told The Cheat Sheet. “On the other hand, a food can be low in calories but each calorie contains little to no nutritional value.” So read those labels — the next time you’re shopping, leave these seemingly good-for-you treats out of your cart.
1. Meringue cookies
You might think these light cookies fit the “healthy” bill (hey, they’re made from egg whites after all!) but this couldn’t be further from the truth. That’s because, for each cookie you snack on, you get a very little amount of egg white. The amount of added sugars you consume, on the other hand, is shockingly high.“Instead, enjoy a cookie made from whole-grain flour,” suggested Palinski-Wade. “This will provide you with more nutrients, a higher fiber content, and a dessert that will actually satisfy your sweet tooth and your hunger.”
2. Canned fruit
If it’s fruit it must be healthy, right? Unfortunately it’s not that simple. When you’re eating fresh fruit you’ve cut up yourself, you are eating fruit in its healthiest form. However, prepackaged fruit in a cup is loaded with syrups, preservatives, and added sugar. “When fruit is canned in syrup — aka it says ‘light syrup’ or ‘heavy syrup’ on the label — that means sugar has been added,” registered dietician Amy Gorin, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in Jersey City, New Jersey, said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet. “You’re better off having fresh fruit, fruit that’s canned in water or 100% juice, or unsweetened frozen fruit.”
3. Flavored gelatin
Who doesn’t love good old Jell-O? It’s what most of us grew up eating — and, for the most part, it’s a relatively light dessert. That is, until you take a look at the amount of added sugar and artificial flavors on the nutrition label. “The gelatin itself can be a source of protein; however, most flavored gelatins are packed full of added sugars and artificial flavors without many, if any, other nutrients,” Palinski-Wade explained. “Instead, swap this for a yogurt topped with fresh fruit for a sweet option that is packed full of protein, calcium, and antioxidants from the fruit.”
4. Mini éclairs
Just because they have “mini” in their name does not make them any better for you — especially if you lack self-control when it comes to snacking. “These don’t hold much in terms of nutrition and, just like the large size, the minis are loaded with a cream filling that’s high in fat and sugar,” Gorin said. If you’re looking for something creamy, she recommends a plate of berries and Greek yogurt. “The Greek yogurt is rich in protein and low in sugar,” she noted. Plus, you shouldn’t need any added sugar with those naturally sweet berries.
Another seemingly light snack that’s actually loaded with sugar is sherbet. In fact, it might be less nutritious than traditional ice cream. Palinski-Wade says, in most cases, it’s a wiser choice to reach for the regular, full-fat ice cream than most sherbets on the market. “Just keep your portion sizes in check, as ½ cup should be enough to satisfy your cravings without going overboard,” she said.
6. Sugar-free brownies
If you find yourself thinking sugar-free brownies are too good to be true, you might be right. They might be sugar-free, but they contain sugar alcohols, which can be incredibly hard for your digestive system to break down, Gorin says. This often leads to a terrible stomachache later on.
Instead, she recommends having a small piece (about an ounce) of dark chocolate. Added perk: Eating dark chocolate regularly may even lower your risk of heart disease and stroke!
7. Flavored ice
Like most of the low-calorie desserts that are deemed healthy when it comes to your post-dinner cravings, flavored ice is often loaded with artificial flavors and sweeteners with no nutritional value. “Flavored ice offers little fat or protein, so it is guaranteed to leave you hungry soon after and may even trigger additional sweet cravings from all the added sugars,” warned Palinski-Wade. “Nix the Italian ice and opt instead for a frozen popsicle that’s made from 100% fruit.” Or, you can make DIY popsicles. Simply throw your favorite fruits into the blender, add a little coconut milk, then freeze overnight.
8. Reduced-fat cookies
These might be marketed as a healthier option, but a look at the nutrition label reveals they’re not so different from the original product. “When companies take out the fat in their products, they have to add back the flavor somehow, and they often do this by upping the amount of sugar,” Eliza Whetzel, New York City-based dietitian said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet. “If you’re consuming a cookie that has 12 grams of added sugars, that means you’re consuming approximately 30% of your daily sugar intake in just a piece of your dessert alone!”
9. Low-calorie ice creams and yogurts
These “diet-friendly” brands claim to have the same creamy, sweet flavor with half the amount of calories and fat content. But many of these products are made with artificial sweeteners, which countless studies have found to be bad for your overall health. A better option would be to make your own ice cream at home using natural ingredients like fruit, coconut cream or oil, and almond milk. You can find countless recipes online or on Pinterest.
10. Snack bars
Brands like Fiber One and Luna are great for providing a quick boost of energy on the go with considerably fewer calories than full-fledged energy bars. However, consuming them for dessert might not be the smartest idea. They’re often loaded with sugar and don’t offer nearly as much nutritional value as you would thinkn. “Many of these bars contain everything from barley malt, corn syrup, fructose, molasses, and soy protein isolate from GMOs, not to mention maltodextrin, polydextrose, inulin, and cellulose, which are non-digestible fibers and carbs that are added to bulk up the fiber content,” Whetzel said.
11. Fruit roll-ups
This favorite childhood treat is marketed as a healthy, low-calorie food that even contains some vitamin C (from the citrus additive, that is), but be careful. Many brands use hydrogenated oil, a product that has been banned in some countries due to links between the trans fatty acids and diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. One woman even started a lawsuit over it. Bottom line: Instead of buying prepackaged roll-ups, make your own.
12. Frozen yogurt
Given the amount of fro-yo brands that have blown up in the last decade, from Pinkberry to Red Mango, we’re not surprised folks are thinking the ice cream counterpart is as healthy as can be. While it might not be as caloric as some regular ice creams on the market, it’s still not great for you. This is especially true when you add on the countless toppings available at most places — gummies, chocolate, peanut butter cups, coconut shavings, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the stuff on occasion, but keep an eye on your toppings.
When you’re making your own smoothie, you have some control over the calorie, fat, and sugar content, but not when you pop by your favorite smoothie stand on the way to work. Just because they’re loaded with your favorite fruits and vegetables doesn’t mean they don’t tip the scales when it comes to calorie and fat content. Especially if you’re buying them premade, you can guarantee they have added sugar.
Beloved for its crunchy texture and sweet flavor, granola has been an obsession in America for over half a century. Yes, it’s loaded with good-for-you grains, but there’s also a hefty dose each of sugar and fat. While it’s not terrible in moderation, it’s wise to eat only a handful at a time and enjoy with a non-fat Greek yogurt or skim milk.
[Editor’s Note: This story was originally published May 11, 2017]