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Are the foods you're buying as virtuous as their labels make them seem? Or are they just wearing "health halos"?

By Alexandra Emanuelli
March 29, 2021
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There's a comedy sketch by George Carlin about food advertising that goes something like, "Everything is natural… even chemicals." Stamped on everything from flaky toaster pastries to cheesy puffed snacks, terms like natural, fresh, and wholesome describe products that seem to defy the words' logic. And suppose you've justified a purchase because it sounded healthier (candy that saves orphans is good for you, right?).

In that case, you may have fallen for the "health halo effect." Defined as overestimating the nutritiousness of a product based on a single claim, health halos are all too common on packaged foods. We'll break down some of the most common health halo food terms and determine whether they add any value, or not, to what you're eating.

1. Natural

This contentious term can be stamped on everything from chicken breasts to cheese, so long as, according to the FDA, "nothing artificial or synthetic... has been included in ... a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food." Huh?!

Often used on food labels for processed foods like snack items or baked goods, the term "natural" creates the idea of the opposite, perhaps even a healthier alternative.

Registered dietitian Victoria Retelney explains a bit further: "The term 'natural' is used to paint a picture that a product may be less processed or contain fewer additives or ingredients when in reality that may not be the case."

Indeed, if you are looking for a healthy alternative, your best bet is to read the nutrition facts panel and the ingredient list, according to Retelney. The first five ingredients are a good indication of the main components of a product.

2. Multi-Grain

Bread, crackers, and even cookies may be marked as "multi-grain," indicating more than one grain in the product. While we may like this label's sound, it can be deceptive, as it doesn't tell us much about whether these grains are refined or not.

According to registered dietitian Barbara Ruhs, you should instead look for products labeled whole grain.

She says, "By consuming whole grains, the person eating the grain is getting all of the natural benefits of B vitamins and minerals that can get removed during the process of refining (processing) grains." Whole grains are also high in fiber, an important means to reduce cancer risk and heart disease.

3. Pure-Filtered

Typically used to describe milk, "pure-filtered" is a term that can provide valuable insight for lactose-sensitive or intolerant individuals. It illustrates that the milk has been processed or filtered to remove the lactose while keeping other essential characteristics (think: vitamins, minerals, and proteins) in the end product. You may also see it labeled "ultra-filtered."

Retelney notes, "Filtered milk is higher in protein that unfiltered milk and lower in natural sugar. It's a good alternative for people looking for a lactose-free milk for their morning cereal, coffee, or oatmeal."

4. Reduced-Sodium

Many Americans are watching their sodium intake and for a good reason. Too much sodium can cause high blood pressure, which can lead to stroke and heart disease. So a reduced-sodium product seems like it would be inherently healthier, right?

Well, this term is confusing because it requires some in-the-aisle math to figure out if it's a sodium-smart choice.

Ruhs explains, "So for example, a can of regular chicken noodle soup contains 890 milligrams of sodium per half-cup serving. A reduced-sodium can of the same soup contains 660 milligrams of sodium," she says, adding, "Just to give you perspective, the American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 1,500mg of sodium in an entire day!"

If you are looking to limit sodium intake, look for the low-sodium label, which cannot contain more than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving.

5. Refined Sugar-Free

Added sugar, aka refined sugar, can be found in many processed foods, from cereal to sauces to bread. "Refined sugar-free" indicates that the product may contain natural sugar sources, either from dairy (lactose) or fruit (fructose), but it won't have added sugar from other types, such as high fructose corn syrup or cane sugar.

This can be helpful, according to Retelney, as "eating excessive amounts of added sugar can lead to health issues, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and fatty liver disease."

6. Local

You've probably heard that local food is fresher, healthier, and better for the environment — and food from your community often is! — but "local" isn't regulated in any way. It can be a broad term used to refer to the county, state, or even country in which you're living.

Ruhs shared some insight from her own experience working with food and beverage companies, saying, "I just took a photo of a circular yesterday that claimed a seafood product was farmed 'locally.' Um, I live in Arizona. I had to question, where is this local fish being farmed in Arizona! It's not — it's farmed in the United States — local!"

Frozen or canned food is picked at the peak of its freshness and then preserved, ensuring that its nutrients and antioxidants remain and are a great and often budget-friendly option if freshness is important to you.

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