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Everything You Need to Know about the Health Halo Effect

This phenomenon occurs when a certain ingredient, food, or category of foods with some healthy characteristics is thought to be completely righteous and wholesome because of aggressive marketing tactics. Some foods with a health halo have had their beneficial attributes heightened to such a degree that people think they are a cure-all and can be consumed with reckless abandon. Scientists use the term “cognitive misers” to describe what happens with the health halo effect. Essentially, this means you depend on mental shortcuts to make faster, more efficient choices to mentally visualize concepts in the world around you.

Food companies capitalize on misconstrued information in the media or trendy buzzwords to make their food products look more appealing to consumers. Health halos can be incredibly powerful, leading you to purchase items you think are healthy but may contain more calories, sugar, or fat than you need. However, do not be fooled by hype and health halos — certain foods are not what they seem.

What Types of Foods Have a Health Halo Effect?

Foods that are surrounded by a health aura often include foods that do contain some beneficial nutrients, such as calcium or protein, but often have more added sugar, salt, or fat than they should to still be considered healthy. Having one nutritious component does not negate the poor health impacts of excess sugar, sodium, or fat.

How to Avoid Being Fooled by Foods with a Health Halo

Overlook misleading buzzwords, pictures, slogans, or unsubstantiated claims from celebrities that make certain foods look as though they are healthier than they truly are. You have all the information you need to make healthy decisions about the foods you can purchase right at your fingertips--simply turn the package over the read the Nutrition Facts Panel and Ingredients list. Be sure to pay close attention to portion size. Simply because a food is nutritious does not mean you should eat four servings of it at one time. For example, nuts and seeds are incredibly nutrient-dense, but they are also high in calories, and eating too many of them could lead to weight gain.

Organic

If a food is certified organic, this term only annotates the agricultural practices that were used to cultivate and produce that food and has nothing to do with the health or nutritional value of the food itself. A certified organic double-chocolate fudge brownie is going to have just as much fat and as many calories as its conventionally-produced counterpart. Organic pizza won't necessarily have fewer calories or less fat. Organic foods can certainly be more environmentally healthy but are not proven to impart any magical health benefits.

Gluten-Free

Gluten-free doesn’t equal healthy or low in calories. This label simply means the food is free from gluten, which is not harmful to you unless you have been diagnosed with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity. A gluten-free cookie contains just as many--if not more--calories and as much fat as a regular cookie. Additionally, many gluten-free bread products are made with refined grains. Whole grains confer many more healthy benefits from the dietary fiber, including making you feel full for longer, aiding with digestion, improving heart health, and helping prevent chronic diseases.

Yogurt

If you choose the right kind, yogurt can definitely be a nutrient-dense food with protein, calcium, and probiotics. However, many yogurts are notorious for having unimaginably high amounts of added sugar--some containing more than a can of regular soda! There will always be some carbohydrates in yogurt because it contains lactose that occurs naturally in the milk from which it’s made. However, if you see more than 12 grams of carbohydrates in a serving of yogurt, you can be sure they have added a great deal of sugar. The amount of sugar varies across fat levels. Fat-free yogurts and low-fat yogurts technically contain more sugar per gram because of displacement (when you remove fat, there is more of the watery portion, which contains lactose). Greek yogurt has less naturally-occurring lactose because more of the liquid is strained off (it’s strained three times, whereas regular yogurt is only strained twice). Added sugar and naturally-occurring sugar, such as the lactose in dairy products and the fructose in fruit, are not the same thing. Look the ingredients list and avoid those with added sugars.

Agave Syrup

Agave syrup is often touted as a healthy sweetener because it has a lower glycemic index than white sugar, meaning it won’t spike your blood sugar as much. But it still contributes the same amount of calories per teaspoon as table sugar — 16 calories per teaspoon. However, agave syrup contains upwards of 90 percent fructose, even more than high-fructose corn syrup. Your liver can only process a certain amount of fructose, and if you consume too much of it, the liver deposits the excess fructose as fat. Just like any sweetening ingredients, it’s best to just use a small amount to enhance flavor.

Granola

Granola is often strategically marketed to health-conscious individuals as well as nature lovers because it was popularized as a nourishing snack among hikers. Even though granola is made from whole-grain oats — which are undeniably good for you--granola often contains exorbitant amounts of fat and sugar. Additionally, most people don’t stick to the proper serving size of granola, which is a mere 1/4 cup compared to the 3/4 cup to 1 cup serving of most other cereals. If you eat a 1-cup serving of granola, you could be easily taking in about 597 calories and 24 grams of sugar.

Protein Bars

Many protein bars or meal-replacement bars are just candy bars with a clever disguise--genius marketing. A large number of so-called “protein bars” have enormous amounts of sugar, some with more sugar than a typical candy bar, yet they are heavily marketed as healthy options. Compare labels and select a bar that has fewer than 7 grams of sugar. And remember, Americans are not falling short on getting enough protein. In fact, a well-established authority on health — the Mayo Clinic — reports that most Americans eat two times more protein than they actually need.

Trail Mix

Trail mix was originally invented for people who planned to spend many hours, or even days, hiking in rough terrain and burning a tremendous amount of calories. Trail mix is a concentrated source of calories in a portable, shelf-stable form. However, most people aren’t exercising strenuously for hours on end and don’t need a calorie-dense snack to replenish losses from physical activity. Additionally, store-bought trail mix ingredients can vary wildly, but many often include refined grains (think pretzels or crackers), salted nuts, chocolate chips or other sweets, sugar-laden dried cranberries, and other high-calorie components. A wiser choice would be to make your own trail mix where you can control the ingredients.

Wraps & Flatbreads

Wraps, flatbreads, and lavashes seem like they would be lighter and lower in calories than sandwiches, but the truth is they can often pack many more calories and refined carbs than two slices of typical sandwich bread. They are often made with a large flour tortilla (12-inch to 14-inch), which contains about 360 calories all on its own. And don’t let the words “spinach wrap” fool you as most of those tortillas contain very little actual spinach if any at all. Most just have green food coloring added or such negligible amounts of spinach powder that it’s not really doing your body any good.

Of course, you can fill it with nutrient-dense, lower-calorie goodies like lean grilled chicken breast or turkey, hummus, and veggies, but many wraps are packed with fried chicken, cheeses, and high-calorie dressings or sauces.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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