It seems like we're bombarded with food products wearing health halos. Terms like "gluten-free," "organic," "fiber-rich," and "whole-grain" prominently labeled on the front of food packages instantly create an impression in a consumer's mind that the food must be good for you. I'm not immuned, I fell for it too!
I had driven an elderly neighbor to her favorite store, Whole Foods, and ventured off looking for snack crackers for my son (usually it's Cheez-Its or Goldfish). The front label of a box of Late July Mini Cheddar Cheese sandwich crackers immediately grabbed my attention. Not only was it labeled ORGANIC in three places but it listed in scary typeface "Produced WITHOUT Dangerous Pesticides," NO Trans Fat or Corn Syrup," and "NO Artificial Flavors, Colors or Preservatives." The back label was much more comforting, describing the company's three generation family, and how the mother created the cracker because her young son needed snacks on the go (just like my son!). I bought the crackers and felt good about it. When I got home and tasted them, I thought they were quite salty and greasy. I looked at the nutrition label and realized that nutrition-wise they weren't anything special. One ounce (13 mini crackers) contained 110 calories, 9 grams fat, 2.5 grams saturated fat and 310 mg sodium. I didn't mind the extra fat and sodium for my son because he burns calories fast and sweats a lot. But I realized that Ritz Bits Cheese Cracker Sandwiches have an almost identical nutrition profile, just slightly higher in calories and lower in sodium. I do understand that eating organically produced food is important to some people and I respect that, but for me I care more about the nutritional value and cost.
This reminded me of the recent controversial Stanford study that tested organic foods (specifically non-processed foods including whole fruits, vegetables, grains, eggs and meats) and found that they were not more nutritious than conventional foods. The findings didn't surprise me but my cheese cracker experience did because I felt duped. I'd given in to the health halo labeling and mom's personal note on the back when later realizing that their taste and nutrition varied little from the Ritz version.
Another new food product I've chuckled about is WhoNu? cookies. Go to their website to experience a powerful health halo effect. The fiber-containing fortified lookalike Oreos, chocolate chip cookies, and vanilla wafers offer "As much calcium and vitamin D as a glass of milk," "As much vitamin A as a glass of tomato juice," "As much iron as a cup of spinach," and the list goes on. Geez, it really is over the top but I know there are parents who will see this labeling as a godsend for their picky eater kids who don't like spinach, milk, etc., and would give them these cookies instead. If you compare apples with apples, I think one serving of these cookies could be better than eating their original counterparts as they are reasonable in calories and fat and have some fiber and a small amount of added nutrients (and they do taste great). But studies have shown that processed snack foods with a health halo cause people to eat more, contributing to weight gain. Janet Helm published a nice summary on this topic.
My lesson learned is to beware of all food labeling that promotes a health benefit. In fact, the more processed a food is, the more marketing the company will employ to sell that product, and manufacturers know that nutrition and health is a high priority for today's consumers. Make objective, smart decisions by immediately flipping the box over to read 1) the Nutrition Facts label and 2) the ingredients list—the fewer the ingredients and the more recognizable they are, the better!