What’s your health food I.Q.?

Don’t be fooled by these common marketing ploys

You block your fellow shoppers from the dairy case to deliberate over which low-fat yogurt will help you lose weight and eat healthier.

As you clandestinely reach for chips on the snack aisle, the health-food fascist in your head starts blaring dire anti-potato warnings and declaring you’ll die of high blood pressure from the salt and hydrogenated fats contained in a single serving.

When did eating become so stressful?

Even a careful eater can be taken in by the food myths of the day, the fads that replace pomegranate juice as healthful nirvana in a bottle with açai berry or warns against that latest evil, dried cranberries.

So let’s blow up two right now. Flavored, low-fat yogurt is nothing but dessert in a 6-ounce plastic cup. And a small bowl of potato chips will not destroy your otherwise healthy life.

What a relief. I feel better already.

Even those of us who watch our weight, exercise, buy organic and read the fine print occasionally break down and slip a frozen pizza into our basket. Or we may succumb to a hankering for sweet cereal (ah, for Lucky Charms).

And that may lead the health conscious to wonder, first, am I going to die of a terrible cancer if I eat this and second, does it matter if it’s a health food version or not? And, well, just exactly what is “healthy?”

“That word healthy means nothing,” said Kathy Thames, a registered dietician and food blogger from the St. Louis area.

She points to the deceptive marketing of flavored yogurts as a health food.

“It’s not, it’s a junk food, it’s filled with sugar,” she said.

Thames and other nutrition experts say only organic, unflavored yogurts – i.e., without the heavy dose of sugar most contain – can be considered healthy and only if you ascribe to dairy as a healthful part of any diet (some nutritionists don’t). Also, they say, whole-fat versions are more nutritious than low-fat.

While yogurt may escape the nutritional trash bin, another breakfast favorite, no matter whether it’s organic, low-sugar, trans-fat and gluten-free, does not. Cold cereal evokes from food experts the kind of revulsion nuclear energy once did from hippies. One local foodie contends you get more nutrition eating the box than its contents.

Nutritionists count cold cereals in the just-say-no category of packaged foods because they’re made from processed grains and most have stratospheric levels of sugar and additives. Even if you buy the organic, low-sugar brands (which, indeed, taste like the box), you’re still starting your day with food that will spike your blood sugar and fill you with empty calories.

They counsel instead to prepare a breakfast heavy on the protein – giving permission to lavish eggs, sausage, steak, quiche, whatever, on your plate. The combination of protein, carbohydrates and fat is essential to providing a balance and a buffer to the less healthful foods you might eat later in the day.

Such as … an energy bar for lunch. Woe be to you for replacing a meal with these torpedoes of sugar, salt and carbohydrates, whether they have a protein component or not. A gander at the list of ingredients on most bars takes not just a magnifying glass, but a good 20 minutes to get through and a dictionary to pronounce most of the contents.

“I’m afraid not,” local naturopath Jennifer Letellier said of the notion that any sport, energy or power bar could be considered a healthful food, deriding the contents of a Special K protein bar for containing chemicals, corn syrup, genetically modified soy and hydrogenated oil, to say nothing of plain old sugar.

She tells her patients to look for the fewest ingredients possible in packaged food, to avoid any ingredients that include a number (it means they’re chemicals and not good ones) and to know what every ingredient is, whether you can pronounce it or not.

“The simpler the ingredients, the better,” she said.

OK, then, how about soup? Surely that’s a healthy meal. Who doesn’t know the Campbell’s soup ad that ends with the refrain “M-m good?”

Nutritionists point to food starch, MSG and artificial colors and flavors to put the kibosh on a healthy assessment for Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. But the hair-raising ingredient in all canned soups, they say, is salt. Campbell’s chicken noodle posts a whopping 790 milligrams, a third of the recommended daily intake, but the organic version is worse. Muir Glen’s organic chicken noodle includes 800 milligrams of sodium.

If you need to watch your salt intake, as most folks with high-blood pressure or heart disease do, then don’t even think about that beer-and-football constant, that high-carb, high-fat fantasia otherwise known as frozen pizza. Yes, a pepperoni pizza is loaded with protein, but it also offers near stroke-inducing levels of salt (1023 milligrams in the grocery store item and 790 in the health-food store one.)

To approximate a healthy diet, if you care, food experts recommend making pizza a rare splurge and choosing the option with the fewest and most natural ingredients.

Finally there’s that beloved snack made of nothing but fat and salt with oh yes, a bit of vegetable thrown in – potato chips, a to-die-for food. No one would ever suggest they’re a health food, which is, of course, part of their charm, but just how bad are they?

“Potatoes, they tend to lead to allergic reactions, spike blood sugar, cause arthritis …” said Letellier, trailing off in the face of the potato chip’s sheer nutritional delinquency.

But sometimes you want what you want. Sometimes the craving for the greasy, the gooey, the salty or the sweet cannot be overcome.

Here’s the greatest food-myth buster of them all: That’s OK.

“If you love it, have it. If it brings you pleasure, there’s actually some health benefits in that,” said Nicola St. Mary, a local naturopath.

Thank the Lord. Then break out the Kettle Chips.

phasterok@durangoherald.com