Beware of too much sugar in 'healthy' food.
Beware of too much sugar in 'healthy' food.

The Christmas cheer has taken its toll. Your head hurts, your guts churn and your bloodstream is two-parts prosecco,​ one-part honey-glazed ham and pavlova.

The only pants that fit have an elasticated waistband.

As the new year approaches you promise yourself that this will be the year of healthy living.

So you chuck out all the junk food and go in search of nutritious fare.

But what does that even mean these days? Supermarket shelves are stacked with wholesome-sounding "breakfast biscuits, vitamin water and vegie chips", while fast food joints are promoting "healthy burgers".

How can you be sure that your "health food" isn't a fraud and your attempts to get into shape won't make you pile on the kilograms?

As Australians prepare for the annual new year health kick, Jane Martin, executive director of the Obesity Policy Coalition, warns to beware of slick marketing dressing junk food up as healthy fare.

"Health sells and the food industry is very aware of this so a lot of foods are promoted in ways that make them look healthier than they are. When a company comes out and says a beer is sugar-free they're capitalising on people's concerns on sugar and it is really misleading," she said.

"People shouldn't have to have a degree in nutrition to be able to make good decisions about what they eat but the industry takes advantage of people and makes it very difficult for them to know what is actually healthy and what's not."

Alison Ginn, dietitian and head of the Cancer Council Victoria's Live Lighter Campaign, said people should pay close attention to nutrition labels.

"If you're looking to eat more healthily the best products to include more of are ones that don't actually come in packets. So try to have more fruit and vegetables, more wholegrain foods and things like legumes and lentils that are generally healthy and don't have anything added so it's a quick win," she said.

Other tricks include asking for dressing to be left on the side when eating out, or choosing tomato-based sauces over creamy dishes.

And when it comes to "healthy" beer, she warns that if it sounds too good to be true it probably is.

"The main thing with beer to watch out for is that it's actually the alcohol that's got most of the kilojoules in there so when they're focusing on saying that it's low-carb or low-sugar beer that may be true but that's not really the point, it's the alcohol to watch out for. Choosing a lower-alcohol beer would be a better option or limiting your alcohol intake altogether."

Health groups including the Public Health Association of Australia, the Obesity Policy Coalition, the Heart Foundation and the Cancer Council have long complained that the food industry is deliberately misleading consumers by marketing foods laden with fat and sugar as healthy options.

They say the current self-regulatory advertising system is not working and have called for tighter restrictions on health food claims. They also want clearer nutritional information on packaging, lobbying for a traffic light labelling system.

But with fierce opposition from the food industry such a scheme may be a long way off.

In the meantime, when you're navigating those supermarket shelves and takeaway shops, how can you spot the the worst pretenders when it comes to "healthy" food?

We asked Alison Ginn to separate food fact from fiction and list 10 of the biggest con artists on the market.

1. 'Natural' sweeteners such as agave syrup, rice malt syrup or coconut sugar

Sugar is sugar is sugar. Whether it's from sugar cane or another crop, too much sugar can lead to weight gain and tooth decay. Pay particular attention to packaged foods and drinks, and foods bought from cafes, takeaway shops and restaurants – they often contain more sugar than you realise.

2. Breakfast biscuits

That's right, they're biscuits … but for breakfast? Like the bikkies you dunk in a cup of tea, these new 'breakfast' biscuit varieties are high in sugar and/or saturated fat and don't make for a wholesome start to the day, leaving you feeling hungry and unsatisfied.

3. Healthy burgers

With more kilojoules than a Big Mac, some of the 'healthy' or 'low-carb' burgers out there could be adding to your waistline when you're trying to get back on the healthy bandwagon. In fact, the so-called 'healthy' buns available at one popular chain burger outlet contain twice as much saturated fat as the standard bun option! Ask for kilojoule information in store and compare for yourself.

4. Banana bread or fruit muffins

They taste warm and buttery because they are warm and buttery. Even though they contain banana or a token blueberry, banana bread and fruit-flavoured muffins are usually nothing more than glorified cakes. They often come in huge portion sizes, too. If you're going to eat a muffin or some banana bread, go halves with a friend, or better yet make your own healthy version using one of the many muffin recipes or banana and blueberry bread recipes at livelighter.com.au 

5.  'Healthy' flavoured waters such as vitamin waters, mineral waters or nutrient waters or sports drinks

With up to 7 teaspoons of sugar per 500ml bottle, these are basically posh cordial. Skip the unnecessary kilojoules and opt for water instead, or infuse with fruit or mint for a refreshing twist. And unless you're an elite athlete you would be better drinking water rather than electrolyte replacement sports drinks, which are usually packed full of sugar.

6. Vegie chips

Also known as 'chips', vegie chips are just deep fried carrot, beetroot or sweet potato. Just like regular potato chips, they are still very high in salt and fat.

7. Snack bars

They might appear healthy, but in reality most bars – be it muesli, cereal, fruit or nut – are made up of about  one-third sugar and pack in more energy than you'd expect from a 'healthy' snack.

8. Flavoured or low-fat yoghurts

Flavoured yoghurts and reduced-fat yoghurts are often high in fat and sugar. Check the nutrition panel and ingredients list for added sugar and high fat content. Choose yoghurts that contain no more than 15g of sugar and 2g fat per 100g. Frozen yoghurt can also be a sugar trap especially when fruit syrups, lollies and chocolate are added to the top.

9. 'Natural' lollies

It's all in the title. Notice that most confectionary using the word 'natural' incorporates it as part of the brand or tagline, so it's not based on their nutritional content. 'Natural' lollies, whether made from fruit concentrate, honey or regular sugar are still high in sugar and don't provide any other nutritional value.

10. 'Healthy' beer

You know the saying, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is? Apply that theory to beer which claims to be sugar-free, low-carb, natural, organic or anything else that makes it sound good for you. While low-carb beers might be lower in carbohydrates than regular beers, they're not necessarily a healthier option. The alcohol and kilojoule content is often very similar to standard beer. Our advice? Consider light beer – the energy you'll save by reducing alcohol outweighs any benefit a 'low-carb' beverage can offer. '

jstark@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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