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Don’t be duped by these tricky “health halos.”

Jenny McCoy
February 13, 2018

Even the most educated eaters among us can fall victim to clever food marketing. That’s because certain descriptions can make a product sound incredibly good for you, but in reality are affixed to caloric, sugary, and high-fat foods.

This is a concept known as the “health halo” effect. Simply put, it’s the act of overestimating the healthfulness of a certain product based on a single claim.

“Consumers can perceive a product as healthy because of how it’s described on the front of the package,” explains Felicia Spence, a registered dietitian with Hilton Head Health. “It can be misleading to well-intentioned consumers who want to purchase healthy items for their homes.”

Here, Spence and two other experts pull the curtain back on some of today’s sneakiest health halo terms.

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All Natural

Why it’s a tricky term: All natural (or 100% natural) products are defined by the FDA as those made without artificial or synthetic ingredients that would not normally be expected in that food. There’s no agency that monitors the use of this term though, and the loose definition “leaves room for the manufacturer to interpret what that means,” explains Spence.

While many products labeled as “all natural” truly are healthy and nutritious (especially if they are minimally processed), others can contain “high amounts of calories, sugar, fat or salt, leaving consumers naturally confused,” says Dafna Chazin, a New Jersey-based registered dietitian.

Unhealthy foods with this labeling: “Products such as mac n’ cheese, potato chips and fried chicken are technically ‘all natural’ as they can be produced without any synthetic ingredients,” says Chazin. Other all natural products include ice cream, potato chips and sweetened beverages, adds Spence.

Organic

Why it’s a tricky term: Unlike all natural products, organic products have very strict USDA production and labeling requirements. The term organic refers to the way a food product was grown, manufactured and produced, and covers three labeling categories, explains Chazin.

  1. 100% Organic - Every single ingredient in a product must be certified organic.
  2. Organic - At least 95% of the ingredients in a product must be certified organic.
  3. Made with Organic - At least 70% of the ingredients in a product must be certified organic.

But just because a food has an organic label does not automatically mean it is healthy, warns Chazin. Many organic foods can be heavily processed and chock-full of sugar, fat, and sodium.

Unhealthy foods with this labeling: Organic is used on an array of “empty calorie” products (i.e. those with little or no nutritional quality), like Newman O’s (which are similar to Oreos), Justin’s Peanut Butter Cups (akin to Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups) and organic toaster pastries (a fancy version of pop-tarts), says Spence.

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Gluten-free

Why it’s a tricky term: Products labeled as “gluten-free” do not contain the protein gluten, which is found in wheat, barley and rye. Following a gluten-free diet is mostly beneficial to folks who are diagnosed with Celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder that affects just 1 percent of healthy Americans), or those with gluten sensitivities or other autoimmune conditions that may be well-managed with a low-gluten or gluten-free diet, explains Chazin.

The problem: “Today, gluten-free has become a fad and has been corrupted by food processors,” says Spence, as many people automatically equate it with “healthy.”

The main issue with gluten-free diets, explains Chazin, is that people who cut out gluten typically do not replace it with nutritious alternatives. “Many gluten-free products are made of highly refined ingredients such as white rice flour, potato starch and tapioca,” she says. What’s more, “these foods frequently contain higher amounts of sugar and/or fat to make up for the less palatable flavor of some gluten-free products such as bread and baked goods.”

Unhealthy foods with this labeling: Corn chips, donuts, corn dogs and gluten-free baked goods are just a few examples of not-so-healthy foods in this category.“Many gluten-free products are higher calorie and have reduced nutritional qualities than their gluten containing counterparts!“ says Chazin. After all, “a gluten-free chocolate chip muffin is still a muffin.”

Whole Grain

Why it’s a tricky term: Whole grains, by themselves, are good for you. The 2016 USDA dietary guidelines recommended that consumers shift their diets to make half of all grains consumed be whole grains—like oats, quinoa, whole wheat, barley and brown rice—as they are rich in fiber and may lower your risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease, explains Frances Largeman-Roth, NYC-based registered dietitian nutritionist and author of Eating in Color. That said, an item that contains whole grains may also contain high fructose corn syrup and other refined sweeteners as well as refined grains, saturated fats, and high amounts of sodium, she adds.

This murkiness arises from the fact that there are three types of whole grain stamps affixed to our foods, explains Largeman-Roth.

The first, “100% Whole Grain,” is used when 100% of the grains in a product are whole and there are at least 16g of whole grains per serving. The second one, “50% Whole Grain,” is used when just half of the grains in the product are whole and there are a minimum of 8g of whole grains per serving. The last (and most basic) one, “Whole Grain,” means a product contains at least 8g of whole grains, but it can also contain refined grains.

Unhealthy foods with this labeling: Processed and sugary breads, cookies and cereals may all be labeled as “Whole Grain.”

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The Bottom Line

Take a closer look at food labels—especially when it comes to packaged, processed foods—to understand what you’re really putting into your body.

“If there is a package, whether a box or a bag, manufacturers have the space to use marketing tactics that are based on what is trending in nutrition to grab consumer attention,” says Spence.

As a quick way to truly understand what you food contains, consider the “5 and 20 rule,” says Chazin.

“When looking at a label, focus on the percent daily value (%DV) and see which nutrients are around 5% (this would be considered low) and which around 20% (high),” she explains. “Ideally your fat, sodium, sugar and cholesterol would be low, and fiber and protein should be high.”

In general, you should fill your diet with mostly whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, 100% whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and healthy proteins, recommends Spence. This will help you avoid excess sugar, fat, sodium and cholesterol and ensure adequate intake of good-for-you nutrients.

Plus, “you will find that it’s easier to navigate the store without having to worry about pesky wordplay,” she says.