If you're reading this (and the evidence is pretty good that you are), you're probably interested in buying the healthiest foods. Just like us, you may even reach automatically for items with a "health halo," such as spaghetti sauce (love that lycopene), or labels like reduced fat!, low sodium!, and whole grain. But unless you're a supersavvy shopper, be warned: Your diet may conceal some nasty surprises.
That low-fat cottage cheese you love? It could be higher in sodium than potato chips. And the low-fat dressing you drizzle on your salad? It could contain nearly as much sugar as two chocolate chip cookies. The truth is that no manufacturer wants to compromise on flavor, so even healthy-sounding products can contain appalling levels of sugar, salt, and bad fats. To save you time, we've flushed out some of the most surprising offenders—and found some truly healthy alternatives.
DISASTER: SNEAKY SALT
Even foods that sound healthy can be loaded with salt—and that can spell trouble. Most Americans already consume double the recommended amount of sodium—currently set at 1,500 mg, or about 2/3 teaspoon of table salt. (The limit was just lowered by the National Academy of Sciences and the American Heart Association from 2,300 mg a day.) If you're in the high-intake group, that could significantly escalate your blood pressure and increase your risk of strokes and heart attacks (even if your blood pressure is normal), says Elisa Zied, RD, author of Nutrition at Your Fingertips.
CULPRIT: McDonald's Premium Caesar Salad with Grilled Chicken contains 890 mg of sodium—more than half the recommended daily limit. And that's without the Caesar dressing, which can pile on another 500 mg. (Select the low-fat Italian and it's even 30 percent higher) In these ready-to-go salads, says Lona Sandon, RD, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, "the worst part is usually the chicken, which is often cooked in a high-sodium marinade for flavor and may also be injected with a sodium solution to keep the meat moist."
Smarter choice: Skip the entree salad and go for the burger with a garden salad on the side. A McDonald's plain hamburger has 520 mg of sodium (250 calories, 9 g fat); add the side salad (20 calories, 0 g fat, 10 mg sodium) or snack-size fruit-and-walnut salad (210 calories, 8 g fat, 60 mg sodium).
CULPRIT: Bertolli Roasted Chicken and Linguine packs a whopping 1,350 mg of sodium in a serving. And if you eat both servings in the 24-ounce package (it's not a stretch), you'll consume almost double your daily sodium in one sitting. Like other manufacturers, Bertolli uses the preservative sodium phosphate—in addition to table salt to flavor this frozen entree.Smarter choice: Amy's Kitchen Light in Sodium Black Bean Enchilada has just 190 mg of sodium per serving.
CULPRIT: Near East Spanish Rice Pilaf contains 910 mg of sodium in its 2.5-ounce serving (240 calories, 0.5 g fat)—nearly two-thirds of the recommended daily dose (and more if you add butter as suggested). That's high, even by the standards of these supersimple dishes, which generally contain about 500 to 800 mg of sodium.
Smarter choice: Near East Original Plain Whole Grain Wheat Couscous contains no salt; simply season with your own spice blend. Bonus: Many herbs and spices like cilantro and turmeric are packed with disease-fighting phytonutrients.