Thoughts on Thursday: The Health Halo Effect

Wandering through my local grocery store a few days ago, I noticed a disturbing trend among the products displayed on the aisle end-caps. Products that for all intents and purposes are nutritional wastelands are being marketed and labeled making them appear wholesome choices for you and your family.

Big food companies (the likes of Kellogg’s, Nabisco, Post, General Mills, etc.) have grown wise to the fact that Americans are becoming more health conscious and are attempting to improve their diets.  Seeing an opportunity to cash in on the trend, these processed food companies are slapping nutritional buzz words like natural, organic, and most recently gluten-free onto product labels, in a feeble attempt to make their “food” appear more nutritious. Let’s get a few things straight here folks.  The FDA has no clear cut definition of the term natural, and as such a company can label virtually any product all natural.  The term organic refers to the manner in which a food is produced (i.e. without the use of synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and additives), not necessarily how nutritious it is.

Case(s) in point:

Simply Natural White Cheddar Cheetos from the kind folks at FritoLay…

So they’re made with sea salt…they’re still Cheetos, just as devoid of quality nutrition as the original.

Looks like fat laden, cheese-flavored air…but hey, they’re natural.

Nutella Chocolate Hazelnut Spread from Ferrero (yes, that Ferrero)…

Nutella’s manufacturer recently got into a bit of hot water over misleading the public to believe that their product carries nutritional and health benefits, marketing it as part of a nutritious breakfast, leading to a $3 million settlement and an agreement to change the product labels and some marketing statements.  Of course the current label still reflects Ferrero’s idea of a “balanced breakfast”: slapping Nutella onto whole wheat bread and paring it with both skim milk and orange juice.

Sounds like a whole lot of simple carbohydrates, very little quality protein, and virtually no healthy fats…very balanced indeed…

WhoNu? Nutrition Rich Cookies…

You and your impressionable kids have probably seen commercials for these “nutrition rich” cookies recently…

Newsflash: the vitamins and minerals these nutritional wastelands contain were added by way of fortification.  In other words, the company synthetically added vitamins and minerals into a food that does not naturally contain them.  Kind of like justifying eating a handful of Skittles by following it up with a multivitamin.

Lest you think you’re better off with the nutritional powerhouses in the “natural and organic” section of your local grocery store, the innovators at Earth’s Best Organic bring your family these Letter of the Day cookies…

Whether you call it organic evaporated cane juice or just plain sugar…it’s still a simple carbohydrate, devoid of any nutritional value.(Sidenote: I thought Cookie Monster was no longer all about the cookies…)









Now you can find MilkBite Milk and Granola Bars in the refrigerated section from the masterminds at Kraft Foods…

Placing them along the perimeter of the store…clever move Kraft.  But you aren’t fooling anyone.

Don’t even get me started on the claims about providing the calcium of a glass of milk, vitamin D, protein, and fiber.  They fail to point out the whopping 10 grams of sugar, the fact that the measly 3 grams of fiber and the paltry amount of vitamin D are both fortified (read: not naturally occurring).  Here’s a thought: instead of relying on a food loaded with fractionated palm kernel oil and soy lecithin for your body’s calcium requirements, try incorporating more greens like broccoli, spinach, brussels sprouts, and kale that provide more absorbable forms of calcium along with a slew of other important, naturally occurring micro-nutrients (think vitamin K, C, magnesium, manganese, and boron).

Saving the best for last, the lovely people at Kellogg’s bring you Eggo FiberPlus Chocolate Chip Waffles…

Providing 35% of your daily requirement of fiber (in the form of added oat fiber) and “rich” in antioxidants, vitamin E, and zinc (all by way of fortification)…along with a laundry list of ingredients ranging from soybean and palm oil to soy lecithin and various forms of sugar.  Looking for the convenience of a frozen waffle but want actual nutrition?  Make a batch of these  over the weekend, freeze, and thaw when you’re ready for them.

So the question is, are consumers actually falling for this blatantly deceitful marketing? Unfortunately it appears as such. According to a 2010 study published in the psychology journal Judgment and Decision Making, the majority of subjects believed that organic cookies were lower in calories than conventional cookies and could be eaten with greater frequency. Similarly, when considering a woman with a weight loss goal, the subjects believed forgoing her planned exercise regime was more acceptable solely because she opted for an organic rather than conventional dessert. It seems the “halo” of buzzwords like natural, healthy, and organic lead people to believe a food is lower calorie and therefore more acceptable to eat with reckless abandon. Marketers take full advantage this misinformation among consumers, simultaneously expanding the wallets of big food corporations and the waistlines of well-intentioned consumers. Don’t let the labels fool you, that organic Oreo is still an Oreo and has no business being in your grocery cart.

Bottom line: Don’t buy into the hype and marketing on the front of the package. Turn it over and read the nutrition label and the ingredient list.  (Hint: if it has more than two ingredients, chances are it isn’t real food and will do nothing to support your health.)  Better yet, try to avoid foods that come with a label and a bar code.  Instead, opt for whole unprocessed foods that are as close to their natural state as possible.


Posted on May 10, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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