This year, Weight Watchers nabbed the top spot in the U.S. News & World Report  (USNWR) rankings for #1 in the new” Easiest Diet to Follow” category in its Best Diets 2012 review.

According to USNWR, one of the reasons the diet is easy to follow is because of a simple points system which allows your caloric intake to be easily calculated and monitored.

Weight Watchers’ success is also partly due to the convenience of the WW frozen and other pre-prepared food products. With pre-measured points, these easy to procure meals require little preparation and keep a dieter firmly on track.   

But some dieters are questioning the healthfulness of these convenient frozen meals and packaged diet food products.

For years Phil Thomas ate Weight Watcher’s Smart Ones for his daily lunchtime meal.  He enjoyed the various entrees, the meals kept his calories down and he considered frozen a healthier option than some of the fast foods convenient to his workplace.   

But last year he embarked on a program to control his blood pressure naturally and quit his blood pressure medications.  Within a week he experienced daily headaches, usually after lunch. Over several weeks, his headaches worsened finally becoming full-fledged migraines. One day he read the “Smart Ones” ingredients only to discover the meal contained 710 mg. of salt–nearly as much salt as a McDonald’s Cheeseburger which weighs in at 720 mg.. That’s not a healthy level for anyone, and it turned out to be the cause his blood pressure spikes and headaches. The meals he liked were higher in salt than most Weight Watchers meals which run around 590mg, strategically just below the 600mg marker that would place it in the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) unhealthy category. Still some advocates say the WW salt levels are too high for a healthy diet.

Thomas quit the meals and the headaches very quickly abated.

Aside from salt content, some health advocates question the overall healthfulness of these popular prepared meals.

high fructose corn syrup

High Fructose Corn Syrup

“Because eating highly processed foods with 50, 60 or more ingredients – even if they are low in calories – is not a good idea. They contain preservatives and additives that you don’t want, many of the source ingredients are of the lowest quality, and they are designed for long shelf life, not flavor.”

The financial success of the Smart Ones meals indicates that flavor is either passable or not a big factor. But the parent company is not exempt from questions over unhealthy food additives. Earlier this year, Heinz, the company that produces and markets Weight Watchers Smart Ones brands became caught up in a controversy over high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the Heinz ketchup line.

In the end, the company compromised by producing a separate ketchup version, replacing the HFCS with sugar.  Interestingly they don’t seem concerned about similar ingredients in their Smart Ones.

In June Weight Watchers issued a statement basically agreeing that their foods contained ingredients considered unhealthy by some, and that added sugars and partially hydrogenated fats are associated with negative health effects (but are still allowed by the FDA). The statement indicated that  these ingredients were present only in small amounts and therefore not necessarily harmful.

“The use of these ingredients is not, however, an all-or-nothing effect. Rather, the relationship with negative health outcomes is directly related to how much of the ingredient is used in the product. The less sugar that is added or the less partially hydrogenated oil that is used, the less impact on health. More importantly, how individual foods are used with the overall food plan also makes a big difference. Therefore, the informed consumer looks not only at what ingredients a product contains, but how much of that ingredient is used.”

The final conclusion; eating the frozen meals is very likely a personal decision, based on one’s opinion or knowledge of the ingredients (i.e. it’s up to you).

Others defend Weight Watchers saying that the processed food line is only meant to be eaten in emergency situations, not when fresh food is available.  But nowhere on the WW site could we find any indication that the meals should be limited to emergency situations.

In a Weight Watchers public forum several people asked whether it was good to use Smart Ones as their only food source for dieting.  

Each time it was asked, the question was rather obliquely answered by the WW nutritionist with the same statement as follows;

“Eating a variety of foods is the best way to make sure your nutrient needs are met. There are many different Smart Ones® entrees that can be used in a weight loss plan. These should be complemented with servings of fruits, vegetables, whole grain products and dairy products.”

Which sounded rather like a possible, no- don’t use WW Smart ones as the sole source of food but the statement wasn’t entirely clear either.

We took a look at just a few of the more controversial ingredients in three dishes: the Weight Watchers Smart Ones Chicken Carbonara, the WW Ice Cream Sundae Dessert and WW Ice Cream Sandwiches, and compiled the following ingredient list along with some of the dangers.

Autolyzed Yeast Extract: Several sources claim that this ingredient is or contains MSG. Others indicate it is simply a glutamate. However many people including most of those with Chrone’s disease are sensitive to glutamates whether MSG or other types.

Corn Maltodextrin: This corn based substance is technically a complex carbohydrate because it is a chain of glucose molecules linked together.  While it appears to be complex, glycemic Index research shows that maltodextrin  acts much like sugar, and is absorbed as fast, if not faster than other sugars.

Corn Syrup Solids Corn syrup solids are just what they sound: dried and solidified corn syrup which is in truth—sugar. However, the government doesn’t view this as sugar, so food manufacturers can use as much of this sweetener without it adding to the sugar total. Look at the nutritional area of any processed product containing corn syrup solids and you can be sure the sugar content is in truth much higher than what is listed.

High Fructose Corn Syrup: Only a few years ago, this notorious ingredient was in nearly every processed food and is still the most common added sweetener in processed foods and beverages. Created by the corn industry as a cheap sugar substitute, they still assert that HFCS is simply sugar made from corn.

Although high-fructose corn syrup is chemically similar to table sugar (sucrose), concerns have been raised because of how HFCS is processed. A 2010 Princeton University study on rats determined that animals with access to HFCS gained 48 percent more weight than those eating consuming water sweetened with sugar. 

Moreover, the rats displayed the characteristics of obesity including substantial increases in abdominal fat and circulating triglycerides. In humans, these same characteristics are known risk factors for high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, cancer and diabetes.

It is worth noting that in the 40 years since HFCS was introduced to the American public, the rates of obesity have skyrocketed from 15% in 1970 to nearly 1/3rd at present.

Hydrogenated Soybean oil & Partially Hydrogenated Oils:  Hydrogenation is the chemical process by which liquid vegetable oils are thickened into solids or semi solids. Partially hydrogenated oils contain trans fatty acids, or trans fats, which are considered more harmful than saturated fats. Besides being a cancer factor, these trans fats promote heart disease, interrupt metabolic processes, and cause belly fat that crowd the organs. Trans fats raise levels of bad cholesterol and lower levels of good cholesterol. Through a complicated process, these mutated fats are used like healthy ones to guard the cell’s permeability—but they don’t do a good job at keeping invaders out.

The body, understanding that the trans-fats aren’t doing the job, keeps sending hunger and craving signals to the brain in search of healthy fats.  

Polydextrose: This ingredient is a synthetic polymer of glucose. It is classified as soluble fiber by the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The substance is considered a sugar alcohol and is a compound synthesized from dextrose (glucose) frequently used to replace sugar and provide bulk in foods, thereby reducing the caloric content. According to Health Canada – (the Canadian “FDA”), excessive consumption of sugar alcohols can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort and laxative effects.

As a fiber additive it serves dual purposes—as bulking agents  and to make reduced-calorie products tastier, such as fat free ice creams and low calorie desserts, with the added appeal of showing up as dietary fiber on food labels. The concern is that it’s unknown whether these fiber additives possess the same health benefits as natural fibers of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Polysorbate 80 is used as an emulsifier in cosmetics and foods, particularly in ice cream. It is also used in immunizations to evenly suspend and distribute the ingredients.  New studies are implicating this substance in numerous health problems including suppressing the immune response and causing anaphylactoid reactions. It is also a suspected cause of various digestive problems. As far back as 1993, scientists were aware that polysorbate 80 causes infertility in mammals via degeneration of ovarian follicles.

Propyl Gallate:  Although the FDA considers propyl gallate safe, in other countries it is either banned or very limited in use. Some side effects are stomach and skin irritability, as well as allergic reactions that impact breathing. It may also cause kidney and liver problems.

Sucralose (AKA Splenda):  Once again the US Food and Drug Administration deems this a safe substance used in moderate amounts. However, a Duke University study indicated that  1.1 to 11 mg/kg doses of sucralose (compared to the FDA Acceptable Daily Intake of 5 mg/kg), reduced the amount of good bacteria in rat’s intestines by up to 50%. These small doses also increased the pH level in the intestines, contributed to increases in body weight. The study was not extended to humans so the jury is still out on this one. However more and more importance is being placed on having a good bacteria balance in the intestines.


The above represent only a few ingredients commonly found in Weight Watcher’s foods that are considered unhealthy or dangerous.Our list is far from comprehensive. Moreover, we’ve yet to explore the possibility that some of the oils such as the soybean oil are from genetically modified soy bean plants.That may pan out to be yet another health consideration.

Clearly Heinz and Weight Watchers representatives know some of their ingredients are considered unhealthy and even represent proven health risks.  However their public statement this year indicates they intend to leave it up to the consumer whether the convenience of the meals outweighs the potential health dangers of Smart Ones frozen dinners.



Cooked enriched macaroni product (water, enriched semolina [semolina, niacin, ferrous sulfate, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid], egg whites), water, roasted chicken tenderloins (chicken tenderloins, water, seasoning [corn syrup solids, flavor, powdered chicken broth, cooked chicken powder, autolyzed yeast extract, salt, fermented molasses, silicon dioxide, paprika, turmeric], modified potato starch, corn oil, salt, soy protein isolate, potassium phosphates, carrageenan, glazed with water, caramel coloring), cooked lean turkey bacon (dark and white turkey, bacon flavor [autolyzed yeast extract, barley malt flour, salt, fatty meat type flavor (contains hydrogenated soybean oil, bonita fish extract), bacon fat and natural smoke flavor], water, salt, sugar, sodium phosphate, seasoning [dextrose, polysorbate 80 (emulsified), spice extractives, artificial flavor, extractives of paprika (coloring), smoke flavoring, sodium erythorbate, sodium nitrite), peas, contains 2% or less of: onions, parmesan cheese seasoning (parmesan cheese [cultured part-skim milk, salt, enzymes], disodium phosphate, salt), mushrooms, milk, cream, modified cornstarch, white wine extract*, sautéed garlic (garlic, soybean oil), nonfat milk, salt, chicken fat, cheese flavor (enzyme modified skim milk cheese [skim milk cheese (milk, cultures, salt, enzymes), water], flavors, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, sodium acetate), egg flavor (egg yolk powder, modified cornstarch, chicken powder), brown sugar, bacon flavor (corn maltodextrin, bacon fat and bacon bits [cured with water, salt, sugar, sodium phosphate, sodium erythorbate, sodium nitrite], smoke flavor, salt, smoked pork flavor [hydrolyzed corn, soy, wheat protein, corn maltodextrin disodium inosinate, smoked pork fat]), spices, chicken broth powder (chicken broth, salt, flavoring), dextrose, beef flavor (corn maltodextrin, beef fat, autolyzed yeast extract [salt, caramel color], modified cornstarch, beef extract [beef, salt], natural flavors [contains natural flavor from partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils]), onion powder, chicken flavor (autolyzed yeast extract, chicken broth, water, salt, flavor), xanthan gum, chicken type flavor (flavor, autolyzed yeast extract, chicken fat [BHA, propyl, gallate, citric acid], glycerine, soy lecithin), black pepper, concentrated onion juice (onion juice, sunflower oil), garlic powder.
Contains eggs, fish (tuna), milk, soybeans, wheat

Weight Watchers Ice Cream Sundae Cone

Low Fat Ice Cream: Milk Fat and Nonfat Milk, Sugar, Polydextrose, Maltodextrin, Cellulose Gel, Mono & Diglycerides, Cellulose Gum, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Carrageenan, Polysorbate 80, Vitamin A Palmitate, Cone: Bleached Wheat Flour, Sugar, Molasses, Canola Oil, Salt, Soy Lecithin, Caramel Color. Chocolate Flavored Coating: Soybean Oil, Lactitol, Cocoa and Cocoa Processed with Alkali, Chocolate Liquor, Whey, Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils (Soybean and Cottonseed), Cocoa Butter, Whole Milk Powder, Distilled Monoglycerides, Soy Lecithin, Artificial Flavor, Salt, Sucralose, Vanillin.

WW Round Vanilla Ice Cream Sandwiches:  bleached wheat flour, sugar, caramel color, canola oil, dextrose, corn flour, cocoa, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, food starch, baking soda, salt, mono & diglycerides and soy lecithin.


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Liesa Harte, M.D.

1524 South IH 35, Suite 140

Austin, TX  78704