8 Ingredients Nutritionists Never Cook With

There are some foods that the pros say are off limits. These are 8 foods nutritionists say they won’t eat and—what to choose instead.

1. Artificial Sugar

If white sugar is off limits, does that mean artificial sweeteners are better? Not so much, says Ashley Reaver, MS, RD, CSSD. “Whether it is in my own pantry or buying processed food from the grocery store, I always avoid artificial sweeteners,” she says. “Research links them to increased sugar intake and disruption of the microbiome. They also can negatively impact the brain-gut connection.” Reaver says she’ll use real maple syrup in recipes, or add fruit or cinnamon to foods boost the perceived sweetness of dishes.

2. Margarine

When this oil-based butter substitute became popular in the mid-20th century, it seemed like an answer to nutritional prayers. These products had less saturated fat than butter, so doctors encouraged their patients to make the swap. Now, margarine has a bit of a shadow cast on it because some brands contain trans fats, artificial fats created when liquid fats are turned into solids. “Just use real butter,” Reaver says. “There is no need to continue using this artificial butter.” If you don’t want to use regular butter, Reaver says, try plant-based spread alternatives—coconut or avocado, for example.

3. Canned Cream Soups

“Cream soups are typically laden with fat and sodium, not to mention the chemical stabilizers required to keep it on the shelves indefinitely,” Reaver says. “Instead, make your own cream-based broths, using a touch of cream, cow’s milk, or non-dairy milk.” Reaver explains that you can eliminate milk entirely if you’re lactose sensitive. Use pureed cauliflower or potatoes for the creamy factor sans cream.

4. Frozen Meals

When it comes to convenience, Jakubowski draws the line at frozen, pre-packaged meals. They’re handy, but they’re not so healthy, she says. “I never buy frozen meals, even Lean Cuisine or other brands that are marketed as ‘healthy,’” she says. “These are almost always full of fat, sodium, and preservatives.” If you need a fast ready-made alternative, Jakubowski recommends prepping ahead.

5. Sweetened Condensed Milk

Bakers may keep petite cans of this thick, syrupy milk on hand, but Staci Gulbin, MS, MEd, RD, LDN, says it’s time to clear the shelf space for something healthier. “I try to avoid using any pre-sweetened food products since I like to have control over the amount of sweetener that goes in my food or drinks,” she says. “In the case of condensed milk, coconut milk tends to work well as a substitute.” Gulbin says coconut cream is a great alternative for creamy soup bases or sauces.

6. Flavored Yogurt

For years, sugar-rich yogurt products made a lot of people feel good about their snack choice, but now we know those flavored yogurts aren’t much healthier than candy. “While flavored yogurt is a hugely popular ‘health food,’ depending on the brand, many contain loads of added sugar, additives, artificial flavors, and preservatives,” says Catherine Brennan, RDN, LDN, CLC. “While there is nothing wrong with eating foods with added sugar from time to time, if you want a truly satisfying breakfast, I recommend buying plain yogurt and adding in your own fresh or frozen fruit.” Brennan says mixing in your own fruit to plain yogurt will increase the fiber content, and you’ll get less sugar.

7. Salad Dressings

“You’ll find no reason, besides marketing gimmicks, to buy a salad dressing,” Moreno says. Instead, Moreno says the healthier—and more budget-friendly alternative—is to make your own. “Use olive oil, vinegar, any herbs, any mustard without added sugar, and any non-syrupy vinegar,” she says. “Voila! Real food dressing.”

8. Regular Pasta

Carb fears haven’t eliminated the much-loved boxes of dry pasta from your grocery store. However, demands from consumers for better alternatives have driven food manufacturers to make basic white pasta work harder and be healthier. “I prefer whole-wheat or pasta enriched with protein,” says Natalie Allen, RD, an instructor of biomedical sciences at Missouri State University.