It’s fun to try new foods once in a while. But when a flashy food fad gets your attention, be careful. Just because a particular food or drink is showing up everywhere doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Here are five trends you can probably skip.
1. Vitamin-enhanced water
Vitamin-enhanced waters have names like Propel Vitamin Boost and Vitaminwater, and they promise lots of vitamins (like B, C, and E) and minerals (like magnesium, calcium, and potassium) in every gulp. But don’t start guzzling. “There aren’t enough nutrients added to these waters to make a difference in your health. I saw one product with 10 milligrams of potassium. The recommendation for daily potassium is 4,700 milligrams per day,” says registered dietitian Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “You’ll get more far more nutrients from a healthy diet.”
Also note: many enhanced waters are loaded with sugar. Vitaminwater (Refresh Tropical Mango flavor), for example, has more than 30 grams of added sugar — well over the 25-gram daily limit of added sugar for women and close to the 36-gram daily limit for men, as recommended by the American Heart Association. Consuming huge amounts of sugar can spike your blood sugar levels and lead to weight gain.
A better idea: “Infuse a glass of water with berries or orange slices,” McManus suggests. “If you’re concerned you have a marginal diet, take a multivitamin.”
2. Coconut oil
Coconut oil is touted as an all-natural way to boost brain function, ward off heart disease, burn fat, improve digestion, and help health in many other ways. Despite the claims, we don’t have solid evidence to back them up. The problem: coconut oil is 90% saturated fat. One tablespoon has about 12 grams of saturated fat (a whole day’s worth in a 1,500-calorie diet), compared with 2 grams in a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil.
Some small studies suggest coconut oil can raise “good” HDL cholesterol levels (possibly because the oil contains lauric acid, which the body processes slightly differently than other saturated fats). However, other studies suggest coconut oil also raises “bad” LDL cholesterol levels.
And no evidence suggests coconut oil reduces heart disease or any other disease. But we have a wealth of evidence that consuming lots of saturated fat can increase your risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke.
A better idea: Stick to canola and olive oils for cooking. “You don’t have to totally avoid coconut oil. But save it for a special meal that calls for it, like a Thai dish. Don’t use it for your everyday oil,” McManus advises.
3. Gluten-free food
These foods are free of gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye, and barley. In people with celiac disease, gluten can trigger an immune system attack on the small intestine. For these people, gluten-free foods are necessary, especially since the protein can hide in sauces, soups, and even salad dressings.
But McManus recommends against eating gluten-free foods if you can tolerate whole grains. “You wouldn’t want to miss out on whole grains when intake is linked to a decrease in heart problems and early death,” she says.
Another problem with gluten-free foods like crackers or pretzels: they typically use rice or potato starch in place of whole grains. “Eating large amounts could increase your blood sugar,” McManus says.
A better idea: If you feel you’re sensitive to gluten but don’t have celiac disease (sensitivity symptoms include bloating, cramping, or diarrhea after ingesting anything with gluten, like wheat bread), McManus recommends keeping a food diary to record what you eat and note any symptoms that occur. If you see a pattern, talk to your doctor or dietitian about reducing your intake of some of these foods and how to replace them safely.
4. Dessert hummus
Hummus is a Middle Eastern dip made from a blend of chickpeas, olive oil, tahini (ground sesame seeds), and a hint of lemon juice. It’s rich in healthy unsaturated fats. Plain hummus is a fine way to get protein, carbohydrates, and various vitamins. But hummus recently has appeared as a dessert treat in restaurants and grocery stores, with flavors like brownie batter, snickerdoodle, red velvet, cherry, and mango. The texture is like gritty cake frosting that you can spread on fruit, pretzels, cookies, or even vegetables. But should you?
Dessert hummus contains sugar and lots of saturated fat. For example, two tablespoons of Delighted By Hummus, Brownie Batter flavor, contains 80 calories, 5 grams of saturated fat, and 4 grams of sugar. By comparison, two tablespoons of Sabra Classic (plain, non-dessert) hummus contains 70 calories, 1 gram of saturated fat, and no sugar.
A better idea: Dip a few fresh strawberries into plain hummus to bring a sweet zing to this ancient staple. Chickpeas, McManus notes, “have a low glycemic index and won’t spike your blood sugar — unless you add sugar to them.”
5. Mushroom-infused drinks
Some coffee shops, restaurants, and even manufacturers offer coffee, tea, or smoothies blended with mushroom powder or mushroom extract. The claims: mushrooms can reduce caffeine jitters and improve your digestion, thinking skills, energy, and immune response. While mushrooms contain numerous plant chemicals (phytochemicals) linked to fighting cancer and protecting our cells from damage that might lead to chronic disease, most studies on the benefits of mushrooms are small and limited to petri dishes and lab animals.
Will a mushroom-infused brew make you feel better? “It’s questionable,” McManus says. “We don’t really know. There’s no research on it.” Plus, you can’t be sure exactly what’s in a mushroom extract or powder, since the FDA does not regulate the safety and purity of dietary supplements.
A better idea: McManus recommends adding spices (such as cinnamon) to your coffee, tea, or smoothies, but only for flavor. “There are small studies that link cinnamon to blood sugar control. But adding it to a drink doesn’t mean you’ll see an improvement in blood sugar,” McManus says, “and it takes away from the big picture when you focus on one ingredient. Nutrients don’t act alone. They work together. Focus on a healthy meal pattern, not one nutrient.”