Feeding children pesto pasta could be worse for their health than letting them eat McDonald's hamburgers, a salt action group in the UK has warned.

The health dangers associated with a high salt intake are well documented: too much salt can raise your blood pressure (hypertension), which puts you at increased risk of health problems such as heart disease and strokes.

That said, balance is required. Although the majority of us eat more salt than we need, we all need a little bit of sodium because it helps to keep your body fluids at the right concentration, and is required for muscles and nerve activity.

For nutritionist Dr Sarah Schenker, a member of the UK's Association for Nutrition, it's not enough to consider the salt content alone in food products. "It's a mistake to look at one ingredient in isolation," she explains. "It's a shame that the salt has been added to the pesto, because potentially it could be very healthy. Olive oil, pine nuts and basil are great, thanks to the essential fatty acids they contain."

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Would-be healthy foods, it seems, are becoming decidedly unhealthy. As a result, it's crucial to wise up and check the label, and also to consider the appropriate portion size. Schenker warns strongly against the perils of fast food and processed foods, which she feels can contribute towards a culture of "mindless" eating.

"Often with processed foods, the problem is that you're not in control of the ingredients," she says. "That's when you get the nasty surprises, and when something that appears healthy simply isn't. It's a real shame that the health benefits of certain products can be undermined. "

13 "HEALTHY" FOODS THAT MIGHT NOT BE SO HEALTHY

1. PROTEIN SUPPLEMENTS

Nutritional therapist Antonia Magor advises protein shake fans to be wary. "Like most crazes what starts as a healthy idea gets convoluted and exaggerated. Protein is an important part of our diet, but we don't necessarily need to be supplementing it with extra snacks and shakes consistently throughout the day. Protein shakes and snacks often contain high levels of sugar and salt, which negates the benefits of the protein."

To get scientific about it, nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert, author of Re-Nourish: The Definitive Guide to Optimum Nutrition, tells us that part of the problem is an ingredient called sucralose: "Sucralose is an artificial sweetener made from sugar in a multi-step chemical process, where three hydrogen-oxygen groups are replaced with chlorine atoms," she explains. "Research suggests sucralose raises blood sugar levels, making us hungry when levels crash - and that contributes to weight gain."

2. SALAD DRESSING

Often too much salad dressing (high in fat and salt) is added to otherwise healthy salads, undermining the nutritional benefits. Dr Sarah Schenker recommends context when it comes to salad dressing, as well as stressing the importance of getting the amount right: "If it encourages you to eat a salad, it's probably better than not having salad at all."

Salad dressing is often high in fat and salt. Photo / 123RF
Salad dressing is often high in fat and salt. Photo / 123RF

3. FAT FREE AND LOW FAT FOODS

Most processed 'low fat' foods are a " horrible hangover" from the days when we believed that low fat diets were the answer to weight loss, says Harley Street nutritionist Kim Pearson. "The fact is, when you remove fat from something it significantly reduces the taste, so manufacturers replace the fat with sugar, sweeteners or artificial flavourings, or a combination of them. Most of the time it's best to stick to the original full fat version."

Yoghurt is a prime example: according to Lambert, low-fat yoghurts contain a "startling" amount of sugar: "Low-fat, sugar-sweetened yogurt contains too much sugar to qualify as a nutritious choice. Many types of low-fat and non-fat yogurt are as high in sugar as desserts. Stick to Greek yoghurt and add fruit for flavour."

4. SYRUPS

"Agave syrup, brown rice syrup, maple syrup, date syrup," lists Pearson. "These are all widely promoted as natural sweeteners, and are used in products that claim to be 'refined sugar free'. However, they are all sugars and should be viewed as such.

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"Syrups like date and maple do contain some beneficial nutrients that are stripped away in the sugar refining process - but not enough to outweigh the downsides. Agave is highly processed and some argue that, because of it's high fructose content, it's even worse than standard table sugar."

5. FRUIT JUICE

It might claim to be 'one of your five a day' but one small (300ml) bottle of pure, squeezed orange juice contains the equivalent to six and a half teaspoons of sugar," warns Pearson. "It's 'natural' sugar, but the body doesn't know the difference between sugar from fruit juice and sugar from a glass of Coke. Sugar is sugar.

"Also, beware of shop bought green juices. Many are marketed as green vegetable juices but actually have significantly more fruit (and therefore sugar) than you might imagine."

Cut back by limiting your fruit juice intake. Photo / 123RF
Cut back by limiting your fruit juice intake. Photo / 123RF

6. CEREAL

"Most of us are aware that cereals such as Frosties are packed full of sugar, but there are a lot of breakfast cereals out there pretending to be healthy when they're actually not," Pearson advises. "Watch out for granola and muesli - they're often significantly higher in sugar than you might imagine. The only way to know for sure, as always, is to read the label."

Processed oat products are often not as good for you as homemade porridge either, adds Schenker, as they're lower in fibre and have a higher glycaemic index. This means they lose the ability to release energy slowly and regulate blood sugar.

7. WHOLEWHEAT AND MULTI-GRAIN BREAD

"It might look healthy, but most shop bought brown sliced bread is processed," says Pearson. "Read the label on your typical brown loaf and you'll see it's packed full of chemical additives - emulsifiers, mould inhibitors, preservatives and trans fats.

"Steer well clear of any big brand sliced bread. Pay less attention to the front of food labels and focus your attention on the nutrition information and ingredients list at the back. It's the only way to be sure of what's really in your food."

Sliced wholewheat and brown breads are processed too, and can contain plenty of unhealthy surprises. Photo / 123RF
Sliced wholewheat and brown breads are processed too, and can contain plenty of unhealthy surprises. Photo / 123RF

8. RICE CAKES

"Rice cakes are a non-food. They're a non-event," affirms Schenker. "They don't taste much of anything. You always need to put something on them, so it's also important to consider what you're choosing; it's better to choose foods that add nutritional value and will keep you going, such as a warming vegetable soup."

9. COUS COUS

"Cous cous is just wheat in a different form. They can be confused with ancient grains such as bulgur wheat, barley and quinoa, but it's not - it's not a whole grain, it's just a processed wheat product," says Schenker. That doesn't necessarily make cous cous unhealthy in itself, just beware that it's effectively a big bowl of carbohydrate, much like a bowl of white pasta.

Cous cous is just another processed wheat product. Photo / 123RF
Cous cous is just another processed wheat product. Photo / 123RF

10. COCONUT OIL

"The health benefits of coconut oil have been overplayed," states Schenker. "It's fine to use different oils and fats for different dishes, but coconut oil is high in saturated fats. It adds flavour in Thai dishes and has a good melting point, but it's not great to substitute olive oil and rapeseed oil for coconut oil completely."

11. BREAKFAST BARS

"Sugar is always added to these because it's what glues them together," explains Dr Sarah Schenker. "If you were to sit down to a bowl of oats with some fresh or dried fruit, that would be much better for you." Her advice is to always make comparisons, and choose the one with the lowest sugar and salt content.

Breakfast bars and protein bars aren't necessarily a nutritional quick fix. Photo / 123RF
Breakfast bars and protein bars aren't necessarily a nutritional quick fix. Photo / 123RF

12. DIET DRINKS

"These intensify your craving for more sweet stuff, and don't do anything to combat sugar cravings - so you end up eating more unhealthy foods such as sweets and chocolate alongside your diet drink," says Schenker.

13. GLUTEN FREE PRODUCTS

"These are often touted as being 'healthier' than their alternatives in cakes, cookies, and energy bars," says Antonia Magor. "However, just removing the gluten from something does not make it healthier. Often the replacements are higher in sugar or sweeteners. To replicate the binding effect of gluten, alternatives are used which have little nutritional value or fibre - resulting in rapid blood sugar peaks and troughs."