Eating healthy shouldn’t be complicated – but thanks to slick marketing & the rise of health halos – it certainly can be!
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 supermarket, things get a bit more complicated. The majority of store shelves are crammed with a tempting assortment of pre-packaged and convenience foods.
So, when faced with the promising claims of clever marketing, how do you 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 buy and which to walk on by.
You may think you’re doing a good thing adding “healthful” sounding foods to your trolley – but in reality, you may end up taking in way more calories, sugar, and unhealthy ingredients than you intended!
This is because most product nutrition claims don’t mean a whole lot when it comes to the actual ‘healthfulness’ (i.e. nutritional quality) of a food.
Healthy sounding claims are actually a marketing trick used by food manufacturers. Nutrition buzzwords – i.e. “natural, organic, paleo, low in calories/fat/sodium” – are intentionally used to help convince us 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 according to research – this sneaky tactic works!
One study offered participants two samples of yoghurt, biscuits, and chips labeled “organic”and “regular.” Participants believed the organic foods were lower in calories and tasted better and healthier compared to the regular foods.
The catch? Both the organic and regular samples were the exact same organic foods! Proving the power of slick marketing!
Some researchers also conclude consumers experience less guilt when they believe they’re choosing a healthy option, which then justifies larger portion sizes and increased calorie intake.
There are two buzzwords that are often aligned with making a healthful food choice that we want to highlight as they’re so commonly used – but they’re also 2 of the most misleading!
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 flavour.
All that added sugar can increase calorie count big time (hellooo 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 yoghurt (flavoured varieties are loaded with added sugar and other fillers), bottled salad dressing, peanut butter (think cute teddy bears or squirrels), 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 legitimate health reason, such as celiac disease, or not!
Gluten-free does NOT equate to low-carb, low-calorie, whole grain, high fibre, low sugar, or organic.
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 utilise 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, biscuits, and snack foods are still chips, biscuits, 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 just means you shouldn’t overestimate the healthfulness of a product based on a word or two!
1. 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.
2. 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. Check out this list of 60 – YES 60 other names for sugar!
3. 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 for carbohydrate-heavy and/or salty snack foods? Eek! If you’re not sure what portion size should look like – download my e-guide ‘How to create the perfect meal’ below.
4. Prepare your own snacks. Avoiding pre-packaged snacks helps you control ingredients. How about trying your hand at baking your own veggie “chips.”
Food Quality and Preference, 2013:
Health Writer Hub, author Dinethra Menon: