Studies have shown that this “health halo” effect leads some people to eat twice as much or more of these foods because they are marketed as healthy.
Mental shortcuts that we resort to while making food choices considered “healthy” . These mental shortcuts are closely tied to what researchers call the heath halo effect.
The health halo effect refers to the act of overestimating the healthfulness of an item based on a single claim, such as being low in calories or low in fat. US researchers report that consumers frequently confuse “low fat” with “low calorie”, resulting in the overconsumption of certain foods. This effect is damaging as it gives us license to eat more than we otherwise would because we feel less guilty if a product is promoted as low in fat or calories. This effect is strong for overweight consumers.
Health halos are not just limited to claims about calories or fat. One common nutrient frequently misunderstood or ignored by consumers is sodium.
Foods You need to Watch
- Vegetable chips. These are marketed as healthy substitutes for vegetables but the nutrition labels on most brands read the same as potato chips. Many of the vegetables’ nutrients are lost in the processing of these chips. Choose real vegetables instead.
- Nutrient-enhanced waters. Most are nothing more than colored sugar water that contain empty calories that contribute to weight gain. Claims that some of these products are a healthy choice because of added vitamins are just marketing hype. Taking a daily multivitamin with a glass of water is a better option.
- Muffins. If they’re sprinkled with a few oats or packed with blueberries, consumers think they’re a healthier choice than donuts. Muffins are nothing more than cupcakes without icing. Mega-size muffins sold in coffee shops can contain 500 to 600 calories.
- Premade smoothies. Most commercial ready-made smoothies are loaded with sugar and calories. You’re better off making your own smoothies with high-quality, nourishing ingredients such as low-fat Greek yogurt, skim milk and fresh or frozen fruits.
- Frozen yogurt. Although made with low-fat or fat-free dairy ingredients, frozen yogurt typically contains high amounts of added sugar. Many of the live and active cultures added to frozen yogurt cannot survive freezing, so you won’t get any probiotic benefits. Probiotics help maintain the balance between good and bacteria in the digestive tract.
Terms to Watch
- Natural: The term does not mean organic nor does it indicate that a food is healthy. For example, a cereal labeled natural, containing a whopping four different types of added sugar it not natural. Tip: when you see this term, read the ingredient list. It’s the only way to really know what’s in a food, and if it’s worthy of a spot in your cart.
- Organic: The USDA Organic Seal indicates that a food was produced without synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes (GMOs), or petroleum or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. The symbol also means that organic meat and dairy products are from animals fed organic, vegetarian feed and are provided access to the outdoors, and not treated with hormones or antibiotics. If the seal says ‘100% Organic’ the product was made with 100% organic ingredients. Just the word ‘Organic’ indicates that the food was made with at least 95% organic ingredients. ‘Made With Organic Ingredients’ means the product was made with a minimum of 70% organic ingredients, with restrictions on the remaining 30%, including no GMOs. But like natural, the term organic doesn’t necessarily mean healthy—in fact, there are all kinds of organic “junk foods” like candies and baked goods.
- Gluten-free: Gluten is a type of protein naturally found in wheat (including spelt, kamut, farro, and bulgur) and other grains, like barley and rye. In people who have celiac disease, consuming even small amounts of gluten triggers unwelcome symptoms, including belly pain and bloating. This happens because gluten causes the immune system to damage or destroy villi, the tiny, fingerlike structures that line the small intestine like a microscopic plush carpet. According to the FDA, the term gluten-free means that a food must limit the unavoidable presence of gluten to less than 20 parts per million (ppm). The FDA also allows manufacturers to label a food as gluten-free if it does NOT contain any ingredient that is any type of wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds of these grains, or has been derived from these grains, or if it contains ingredients that have been derived from these grains, but have been processed to remove gluten to less than 20 ppm. Take note that gluten-free foods are highly processed and include ingredients like refined white rice, sugar, and salt.
In addition to quality and quantity, balance is critical for feeling well and achieving weight loss. Read the labels before you decide to use.
Don’t let our guard down when you see items labeled with healthy-sounding terms. Just because the food says it is low in fat, don’t assume this means it is low in calories, low in sodium, or necessarily any healthier than other item. Know what you are eating by paying close attention to the nutritional information and, just as importantly, the recommended serving size.