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Published on March 01, 2017

Health halos: What they are and why you need to avoid them

Your favorite health foods may not be as healthy as you think.

March, being National Nutrition Month, is a great opportunity to celebrate all the nutritious foods on your plate with even more gusto than usual! But are your favorite healthy foods really as nutritious as you think they are?

Sadly, the food industry still plays a big role in what we consider to be healthy. Companies use many tactics to draw consumers' attention to one virtuous aspect of a food to make the food appear better for you than it actually is. This tactic is known as the health halo, and it is something all consumers should be aware of.

Here are a few health halo examples used by the food industry:

  • Gluten-free - Many people equate gluten-free with being healthy. Don't be fooled; gluten-free cookies are still cookies, and the absence of gluten does not make them any better for you than the alternative. In fact, the gluten-free label is often added to foods that are naturally gluten-free just to make them seem like a healthier option—a tactic used in labeling many "free" foods.
  • Organic - Organic farmers use different farming practices to produce their goods, but this does not mean that the end product is any more nutritious. Organic foods are often much more expensive, for very little—if any—benefit compared to those produced with conventional farming techniques.
  • Natural - Of all the health halo buzzwords, this one is by far my favorite. Natural means, by definition, existing in nature. But there are plenty of things existing in nature that you wouldn't want to find in abundance in your food. Arsenic, which is naturally found in apples, is a perfect example. Sugar is another good example: it is a natural substance often derived from cane, a plant. Food companies can add sugar to your food and claim that it is made with natural ingredients—but this doesn't mean it's healthy for you to consume it.
  • The packaging - Looking at a food in the grocery store, how do you decide if it is a healthy food? Is it because the package contains earthy-looking colors? Is it because of the pictures of healthy ingredients on the package? Did you find it in the health food section? Does the food just look healthy? Keep in mind that the front of the package tells you virtually nothing about the food inside. The nutrition label and ingredients list are where all the important information is.
  • Agave, chia, flax, quinoa, honey, hemp, kale, etc. - Is a food healthy if it contains one of these ingredients? Many people see these health halo buzzwords and assume that the entire food is a health food if it contains them. Again, the ingredients list and nutrition label is where you should look to find this information.

So what should you do to avoid the sneaky tricks employed by the food industry? Well, you can start by filling your diet with foods that don't even need a package or label—fruits and vegetables, lean meats and whole grains, to name a few. Knowing what to pay attention to on the food label, which varies depending on the item, is another important skill to have and something a registered dietitian can certainly help you with. But remember, no food is healthy or unhealthy on its own; it's the overall picture of your diet that really matters!

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