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One Small Change: Avoid the Health Halo

By , Jason Machowsky, Food Network’s Healthy Eats
Just as the first impressions of a person can influence our perception of them far into the future, research shows the same can be said for the foods we eat. Once a food or restaurant is deemed "healthy", we tend to let our guard down and forget about the facts of what we are truly eating – a proverbial junk-food wolf in a nutritious sheep's clothing. 

This phenomenon for food has been dubbed the "health halo" effect. 

You may have experienced a similar situation in another aspect of life: relationships. One of your friends may have become so smitten with one feature of a potential suitor (they're attractive or fun to be around) that they completely disregarded the ten other red flags about them (i.e. they’re chronically late, don’t have a job, quick to yell at others) even though everyone else, including you, clearly saw the inconsistencies. Don’t let the same thing happen to you with the foods that you eat!

Here are a couple "seductive" labeling tactics that could lure you into eating foods that may just end up becoming a bad date for you and your waistline:

Low-Carb, Low-Fat or Trans-Fat Free
These labels are dangerous, because they mask the real issue: calories. Just because a food is labeled as low-carb, low-fat or trans-fat free does not necessarily make it low-calorie. Excess calories are what ultimately lead to weight gain, regardless of whether they are from carbs, fat, trans-fat or protein.

Why do most foods with "low-carb" and "low-fat" labels tend to have similar calories to their full-carb and fat versions? Taste. To make the foods tasty, companies may add in significant amounts of fat (for "low-carb" foods) or sugar (for "low-fat" foods) during the production process.

It goes beyond replacing one nutrient with the other (carbs vs. fat), the quality of the food itself can suffer as well. Added fats and sugars are rarely beneficial to us compared to the natural fats and sugars of foods like avocados and apples, which usually come along with health-promoting fiber, water, vitamins and minerals. So if the low-fat, low-carb or trans-fat free snacks  taste processed or "too good to be true", they probably are.

Finally, research has shown that people tend to over-eat these seductively labeled foods because they think they're eating "healthier." You actually may have been better off (and more satisfied) by eating a smaller portion of a regular snack. That's how the French paradox has developed: you can eat rich foods and stay slender, as long as you eat them in moderation. Ultimately it's the total calories that matter.

All-Natural and Organic
All-natural is a "feel good" phrase. It sounds nice and looks great on paper (or packages). Unfortunately from a health or calorie perspective, it means absolutely nothing. There are very few regulations regarding the use of the term "natural", so pretty much any pastry made from flour, butter and sugar can be called natural. Even many sugar-laden cereals are deemed natural. An analogy I tell my clients about the natural label is: many illicit drugs are considered natural because they come from plants … would you consume them if they were suddenly labeled "all-natural"?

Click here for more labeling tactics you may have been fooled by from Food Network.

Have you had any recent health halo realizations about the foods you're eating?

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GEORGE815 1/13/2018
A small change is sometimes all we need. Report
One of the earliest "health halo" rude awakenings I got was years ago getting some Eagle Brand Condensed Milk to make Coconut Macaroons for Passover. I got there and suddenly saw next to them "LOW-FAT Eagle Brand Condensed Milk". Well, I was fat and didn't know anything about SparkPeople or that there was a thing as "healthy fats" - this was around 1998 or so - and feeling like I should make better choices for my health, I started reading the labels (I had been on WW before). I was shocked to find that there were MORE CALORIES in the low fat version than there was in the regular Eagle Brand version!! And yes, it was lower in fat percentages but higher in the sugar percentages, so the total calories ended up being MORE than the calories in the regular. Oh wait, I just said that!! So I went with the regular fat - why mess with the flavor I loved if it was the "fat mouth-feel" and satiety factor, and total calories ended up being less! Report
I was at the store recently reading the box of Nutrigrain breakfast bars. The front proudly boasts "No high fructose syrup" yet the ingredients list "corn syrup" in the filling section. While they are technically not lying, it seemed pretty dishonest to me. Report
It was a bit unsettling to me that SparkPeople lumped All-Natural and Organic together, and then only addressed the "All-Natural" term (which of course, the term means nothing as Spark points out, except that perhaps it doesn't contain something artificial). No comments were made about the term "Organic", however. Hopefully, people know there ARE legal requirements to be met before the organic label can be put on a package. It would have been helpful if SparkPeople could have listed those, so people get the whole picture.

For anyone interested, the USDA site has copious amounts of information on what is required to be certified organic.

But, briefly, Organic products must meet the following requirements:
Produced without excluded methods (e.g., genetic engineering), ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge.
Produced per the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (National List).
Overseen by a USDA National Organic Program- authorized certifying agent, following all USDA organic regulations.

Prohibiting the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, as well as the prohibition of genetic engineering of products are what attracts most people to buy organic.

But as a previous poster pointed out--junk food is junk food. Just because it is organic doesn't really negate the "junk" factor. Report
I always read the label. I told the clerk in the store that I am allergic to an ingredient in the item that she was trying to get me to buy. She said, "But it's all natural!" I answered, "But it will naturally kill me."

And then there are all those foods that should be healthy as is that have added sugar. Why? Report
I just bought some frozen salmon. It said wild alaskan salmon. Then I read the fine print - farmed - wild alaskan salmon from china.How do they get away with that? Report
Although I try to buy as naturally as possible, I always flip to read the label. Calories don't bother me as much as what is actually in the food I'm eating.
I shop at whole paycheck and remember walking out with my organic chips, candies, some organic ice cream and other items (there were fruits and veggies there as well). My cousin, a health nut took a good look at my bag and said, "I used to eat those too. But then I realized that I replaced crap with organic crap." It kind of changed how I look at a lot of those foods. Report
Thanks for sharing
While much in the article is true., I do have to say that I stay away from processed food as much as possible. I do eat a lot of certified organic, because it is not sprayed to death. I now read labels...I want to see ingredients that I want in my body. For example the "Natural" Brand of peanut butter I use is the store brand, costs less than most the other brands and has two ingredients - peanuts and salt. I feel better about my food choices. I am not wanting to eat antibiotics, etc. I know the value of the food isn't less healthy, I just don't want all the junk that is in processed food. The big surprise is that after the initial 1st month of stocking the pantry, our bill actually went down $30.00 per week from the way I was shopping before. I find that I simply find more sales, even though I do not use coupons any more. In addition, I fell like I sleep better too. My doctor said that it may be the diet that is free of pesticides. Sorry, I just can't find much wrong with my new choices of no added sugar, natural and organic. (Course I cook from scratch and don't get much out of a box - that is where most the bad stuff is). Report
Even rat poison is 'natural'. :D Report
Yeah it reminded me of those fibre one bars - not really all that good for you I stopped eating them as I didn't think they were any better for me than any other granola type bar - a lot of sugar and fat despite what the hype said. Report
For medical reasons (I have a partially paralyzed digestive system) I must eat a low fat diet. Even healthy fats must be limited. Simple carbs are good for me. I wanted to splurge and make some brownies and have small bites, and I found the 'reduced fat' mix was higher in fat, calories, and sugar than taking the regular mix and replacing oil with applesauce.

I think it's more important to ignore everything on the front of an item and look only at the nutritional information and ingredients label. That's closer to the truth (there's still the 'rounding down'). For restaurants, never assume. Always look at the nutritional information BEFORE stepping foot in the building to help you make better choices. Report
Del Monte's No Salt Added Tomatoes are 25 calories a cup, but Del Monte's No Salt Added Tomatoes with Basil, something and garlic has around 50 - corn syrup added! Grands Fat Reduced Wheat Biscuits have trans fat in them. The reduced fat peanut butter has less of the healthy fat and more sugar or corn syrup. I've now learned about these 3. Got my eye open for other health halo foods. Report
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