What is a “Health Halo”?
If you’re trying to eat healthier, you already know you should be including lots of fruit, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains.
But when you step into a grocery store, things get a bit more complicated. The majority of store shelves are crammed with a tempting assortment of pre-packaged and convenience foods.
So, how do shoppers know which foods are healthy options?
Most people turn to nutrition and health claims found on food packaging labels to help them decide which products to pick and which to skip.
You may think you’re doing a good thing adding foods that sound “healthful” to your cart, but in reality, you may end up taking in way more calories, sugar and unhealthy ingredients than you intend!
This is because most product nutrition claims don’t mean a heck of a lot when it comes to the actual healthfulness of a food.
Healthy-sounding claims are actually a marketing trick used by food manufacturers. Nutrition buzzwords, such as “natural, organic, paleo, low in calories/fat/sodium” are used intentionally to help convince you to buy.
This concept is known as a health halo: the perceived healthfulness of a product based on a single quality or health claim.
And it works!
Here’s what happened when the Health Halo was studied:
One study offered participants two samples of yogurt, cookies and chips. One sample was labeled “organic” and the other was labeled “regular.” Participants believed the organic foods were lower in calories and tasted better and healthier compared to the regular foods.
Both the organic and regular samples were the exact same organic foods! Proving the power of slick marketing!
Some researchers concluded that consumers experience less guilt when they believe they’re choosing a healthy option, which then justifies larger portion sizes and increased calorie intake.
The two most common nutrition claims that contribute to health halos?
There are two buzzwords that are often aligned with making a healthful food choice: they’re used quite commonly, but they’re also two of the most misleading!
Shoppers tend to believe “low in fat” equates to low in calories. Not the case!
When fat is removed from a food, it’s usually replaced with unhealthy ingredients (think chemicals) and sugar (usually lots of it!) to improve texture and flavor.
All that added sugar can increase calorie count big time (think bigger waistline) and end up being worse for your health overall than if you’d just had a bit of the full-fat original!
Common examples of reduced-fat foods perceived as healthy include yogurt (flavored varieties are loaded with added sugar and other fillers), bottled salad dressing, peanut butter and commercially baked snacks, like crackers, muffins and cookies.
The term “gluten-free” has become synonymous with healthy — whether you need to avoid gluten for a bona fide health reason or not!
Gluten-free does NOT equate to low-carb, low-calorie, whole grain, high fiber, low sugar or organic.
Remember: Gluten is a protein found in wheat, spelt, kamut, rye and barley. A gluten-free food doesn’t contain any of those grains that contain gluten — that’s it!
Yet, you’ll see “gluten-free” slapped on the labels of foods that never contain these ingredients to begin with.
Case in point? Potato chips.
Potato chips (should) contain potatoes, oil and salt. There are generally no gluten-containing ingredients in chips, but food manufacturers still utilize the “gluten-free” label freely to help drive sales.
And no, sorry, eating an entire bag of fried potato chips isn’t a healthy option – even if the bag reads “gluten-free.” Gluten-free chips, cookies and snack foods are still chips, cookies and snack foods.
How to Avoid Falling for Health Halos
On a positive note, just because a food (or food-like) product features a health halo-type claim doesn’t mean you can’t have it. It simply means you shouldn’t overestimate the healthfulness of a product based on a word or two!
Here are 4 tips for how to avoid falling for those alluring products:
- Read nutrition labels — very carefully. Investigate the calorie, fat and sugar content per serving to determine whether a food is the best choice for your health goals.
- Read ingredient lists — very carefully. For example, if you’re trying to eliminate added sugars, you’ll want to steer clear of any products that list some form of sweetener in the first few ingredients.
- Pay attention to portion sizes. Stick to a single serving, and measure if you’re tempted to overeat.
(Did you know that the average person generally eats 2-3 times the normal portion size or carbohydrate-heavy foods and/or salty snack foods?)
- Prepare your own snacks. Avoiding pre-packaged snacks helps you control ingredients. How about trying your hand at baking your own veggie “chips” or eating an apple?
So do you eat any foods with a health halo? If yes, — it’s okay, you’re only human, with taste buds! However, please consider that your snack choices may be doing more harm than good, even if you buy the healthiest sounding ones. And do you regularly check nutrition labels and ingredient lists? If not, might you be doing so in the future? Please comment below. We look forward to hearing from you.