9 “Zero-Calorie” Foods That Aren’t Really Zero Calories
Say it isn’t so: Those supposedly calorie-free foods you depend on may be helping your waistline expand. Here’s what to watch out for.
Manufacturers may be fooling you with zero calorie foods labels
We hate to be the bearers of bad news, but all those zero calorie foods you've been munching on with abandon aren't really calorie-free. Nothing you put in your mouth, chew, and swallow is completely free, it turns out. Per the FDA, manufacturers are allowed to say a food is calorie-free if a serving is less than five calories. Which means that if you're squirting a lot of that "calorie-free" flavoring into your smoothie, or spraying a bunch of that "no-cal" cooking spray in your pan, you could be getting as much as 20 to 30 calories. Do that several times a week and eventually, you'll be tacking on pounds to your frame. Here's a look at some of the biggest "zero-calorie" offenders.
Here's your complete guide to reading food labels.
Each spritz of cooking spray lasting one-third of a second contains about two calories. If you douse your pan for longer (and who doesn't?), those calories can quickly add up. If you're worried about calories, opt for steaming over roasting or frying your produce and proteins. "Most liquid oils contain a similar amount of calories — roughly 120 calories per tablespoon — and this amount isn't going to differ much from oil to oil," says Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition. "Olive oil, for example, contains 119 calories per tablespoon, while avocado oil contains 124 calories per tablespoon." So while some avocado sprays lists zero calories on the nutrition label, they're most certainly not calorie-free.
As far as trendy superfood ingredients go, spirulina is currently leading the pack. "Spirulina is a type of algae that contains many vitamins and minerals, as well as protein," explains Gorin. "One tablespoon of dried spirulina contains 20 calories and offers about four grams of protein." In addition to helping give your smoothie a protein boost, Gorin points to research showing that spirulina can potentially help people with allergies. "One study found that patients with allergic rhinitis receiving 2,000 milligrams of spirulina daily noticed beneficial effects. You can purchase spirulina in capsule or powdered form. For the capsule form, 2,000 milligrams would contain about seven calories."
Spices are a fantastic way to flavor food, but they're not calorie-free like many people think. Yes, they are very low in calories — especially compared to most condiments and sauces. But Gorin says that one teaspoon of cinnamon contains six calories. "You can use cinnamon to sweeten your coffee or as a mix-in to sweeten muffins. Research shows that cinnamon may help control blood sugar levels, especially in people with type 2 diabetes. Even just one gram of cinnamon — about half a teaspoon — daily has been found to have beneficial effects." This is a spice that's worth its weight in calories.
Sugar-free gum and mints
Don't get fooled by sugar-free labeling — it doesn't mean calorie-free. "Each stick of sugar-free gum has five calories, and if you chew a large pack (18 sticks) that's 90 extra calories daily," says Leslie J. Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN, and the owner of Active Eating Advice. Ditto for sugar-free mints like Tic Tacs. "These may only have two calories in one, but they're very easy to overconsume over the course of the day."
The calories in a single tablespoon of fat-free dressing may say zero, but even if that was true (which we know it's not), who uses a single tablespoon? "Most people try to have a big salad to fill them up and that means more dressing," says Bonci. "Yes the calorie-free dressing may have fewer calories than most regular ones, but the more you use the more calories you will accumulate."
You'll see claims of "calorie-free" because the product contains artificial sweeteners, gel, and fiber that isn't absorbed by the intestinal tract. According to Shilpi Agarwal, MD: "The concern with artificial sweeteners is that they confuse the brain in terms of sweetness detection, insulin signals, and hunger/satiety signals. In the long term, we know that people who consume a lot of artificial sweeteners, for example, diet soda drinkers, are actually heavier/gain more weight."
Matcha is full of good-for-you antioxidants, but unlike green tea, it's not calorie-free. Why? Matcha is a powdered green tea that is prepared by whisking the powder with hot water, meaning you're ingesting the tea leaves. On the plus side, the calories are very minimal and matcha boasts significantly more nutritional benefits than you would get with traditionally brewed leaf teas. In fact, 1/4-1/2 teaspoon of matcha is equal to eight to ten cups of regular tea in terms of its antioxidant power.
The myth is that celery has zero calories because you burn more calories chewing it than the vegetable actually contains. While that may not be true, celery is in fact mostly water. In other words, it is about as close to being calorie-free as you can get, and therefore is a better lo-cal choice than many other options on this list.
Splenda can lead to weight gain, and not just because it's not zero calories. "It's an artificial sweetener which confuses the brain in terms of satiety signals and can cause weight gain down the road. Avoid it," advises Dr. Shilpi.