This is how the food industry is tricking you into making unhealthy choices
When faced with an option between regular potato chips or organic veggie chips, the health-minded among us who are looking for a guilt-free snack will likely choose the latter. After all, organic vegetables are better than regular potatoes, right?
Wrong. Because at the end of the day, “a chip is a chip is a chip,” says Rhonda Bell, professor of human nutrition at the University of Alberta. But the reason the health nut opts for the organic veggie version has less to do with being mindful — and more to do with being duped.
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It’s called the “health halo,” a phenomenon created by the food industry to convince consumers they’re making healthy food choices by labelling otherwise unhealthy options with guilt-appeasing terms like fat-free, organic or low-calorie.
“Food is advertised with included [or excluded] ingredients to give the impression that a product is healthy, regardless of what evidence there is to back that up,” Bell says. “It doesn’t matter if chips are made from sweet potato or rice or beets, it’s a low-nutrient snack food. There isn’t anything magical about any of these products.”
It doesn’t just apply to snack food, either. Bell points out that beverages are often the biggest culprit, labelling their bottles with claims of added vitamins and nutrients. But they’re often adding things we don’t even need.
“There are a number of beverages on the market now that contain vitamin E, but there are very few instances of vitamin E deficiencies in people, unless it’s a clinical issue,” she says. “What’s worse is, with these beverages, a lot of the time the amounts are either so low that they’re negligible or so high that they exceed the upper tolerable limit. It’s not about health, but marketing.”
“Gluten-free” might be the most touted “health halo” today, but its appeal to anyone other than a Celiac sufferer is nonsensical.
“Unless you’re on a gluten-free diet because you have to be on one, buying that snack isn’t going to be relevant to you,” says Andrea Miller, a Whitby, Ont.-based registered dietitian. “In the end, you’ll consume more because you perceive it as healthier and those snacks may actually be higher in calories.”
Another term that could land consumers in that trap is “organic.” A Cornell University study found that the “organic” label influenced consumers’ perception of taste in addition to caloric intake. Participants were asked to compare two yogurts, two types of potato chips and two types of cookies. One from each pair was labelled organic — but in fact, they were all organic.
The organic cookies and yogurt were both estimated to have fewer calories and were said to taste lower in fat, while the organic chips were deemed more appetizing.
These perceptions were also found to extend to restaurant food. Another series of studies conducted by Cornell and the INSEAD Social Sciences Research Centre measured participants’ perception of fast food from McDonald’s versus Subway.
Throughout the studies, participants consistently chose food items from Subway under the guise that they were healthier compared to McDonald’s, and they underestimated the amount of calories they consumed at the “healthier” restaurant.
“Consumers chose beverages, side dishes and desserts containing up to 131 per cent more calories when the main dish was positioned as ‘healthy,’ even though the main dish contained more calories than the ‘unhealthy option,'” the researchers noted.
Salads are a regular culprit on restaurant menus, Miller says. While we generally perceive them as a healthy meal, once they’re doused in croutons, cheese, meat and highly caloric dressing, you could be consuming up to 1,000 calories.
“Ask detailed questions about portion sizes and toppings that come with the food,” Miller says. “You might order a grilled fish only to find it’s served with a heaping pile of fries.”
When it comes to shopping the grocery-store aisles, the experts say you’d be wise to read beyond the bold print you see on the front of the package and go right for the ingredient labels. This will be easier in the near future, Bell says, as labelling laws will soon change to better inform the public about added ingredients.
In the meantime, Miller says, choose whole foods — that don’t need to come with labels — as much as possible.
“If you want potato chips or cookies, don’t get caught up in healthy-sounding labels,” she says. “Eat what you like, but in moderation.”
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