Don’t feel foolish for getting tricked into thinking “health” foods like yogurt and granola are good for you. The food labels misled you, alluding to a food having redemptive benefits, even though they’re packed with way too much sugar. These “health halo” labels are tactics designed to get you to buy junk food without feeling bad about it.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is constantly looking for ways to regulate the claims food manufacturers make on their packaging, but it’s not always easy. You might see labels on food packages that say “natural,” “light,” “diet,” “healthy,” or even “sugar-free.” These claims may mean something positive, but they also distract from the negative aspects of whatever you’re about to eat.
For example, one of the most common “health” food package labels you’ll see is “low-fat” or “fat-free.” While this may be true, it’s important to keep in mind that the absence or reduction of fat usually means the presence of way too much added sugar. Manufacturers know they must make low-fat foods palatable in some way, so they add tons of unhealthy sugar to make you enjoy the product (and want more of it). What’s worse is many products claim to be “sugar-free” and have just replaced the sugar with artificial sweeteners.
To help you best navigate the grocery store aisles, here are the most common health halo food terms that are fooling you, according to Sugar Free 3 author, Michele Promaulayko. And while you’re keeping an eye out for those, be sure to try out these 21 Best Healthy Cooking Hacks of All Time.
At this writing, the FDA hadn’t formally defined the term “natural,” but many consider it as food without artificial flavors, added colors, or synthetic ingredients. That’s great, but it’s also incredibly easy to side-step. As a consumer you might think a “natural” food sounds healthy and free of processed ingredients, so you’re making a great decision. In actuality, it can still contain added sugars and unhealthy ingredients.
With an “organic” label, the devil is in the details. A food that claims to be “100% organic” is made with all organic ingredients or foods that weren’t grown or made using bioengineered genes (GMOs), synthetic pesticides, or sewage sludge–based or petroleum-based fertilizers. However, if a label simply says “Organic,” it means the food is only made with 95% organic ingredients.
If the food is labeled as “Made with Organic Ingredients,” it’s 70% organic and 30% of the ingredients are defined by other regulations, but aren’t necessarily organic. Organic food can reduce or eliminate the chemicals you’re ingesting. But these foods can still contain added and refined sugars, which doesn’t always make them the healthiest choices. I could make you an organic chocolate cake with organic sugar, organic refined flour, organic butter, organic chocolate, and organic eggs. I could even write the word “organic” on top of it in organic frosting. Would that make my cake good for you? Absolutely not.
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Gluten is a protein that occurs naturally in grains, such as wheat, rye, and barley. The FDA defines a “gluten-free” product as one that limits the presence of gluten to less than 20 parts per million. This label is helpful for celiac disease sufferers or other consumers who need to avoid ingesting gluten. However, even foods that don’t naturally contain gluten can use this to trick consumers into thinking they have health benefits. Also, many people mistakenly believe that gluten-free automatically equals healthy. This allows added sugars or other unhealthy ingredients to slip by in these products unbeknownst to consumers.
This is one of the biggest health halos of them all. Unless a product is labeled “whole wheat” or “whole grain,” it can still be refined flour, making it as bad as simple sugar. When shopping for breads and grain products, always check the nutrition facts label, and aim to choose whole wheat or whole grain varieties with no added sugars, and as few ingredients as possible.
“Enriched” foods sound like they have vitamins or minerals added. That’s not wrong, exactly. What the labels won’t tell you is that those vitamins and minerals were likely stripped away during processing and then added back in. (I remember the “enriched” white bread of my childhood; turns out the nutrients were lost due to bleaching the flour, and then tossed back in.) Furthermore, while healthy foods can be enriched, enriched foods aren’t necessarily healthy.
And wait—sugar itself has been crowned with the health halo of being an “energy food.” This isn’t a completely erroneous marketing ploy. Your body needs sugar (aka glucose) to provide you with energy. When you consume sugar, it’s digested and enters the bloodstream, where it’s delivered to your body’s cells. It provides your cells with energy and helps your body to function. If it’s not needed, your body stores it.
However, food manufacturers are known to abuse that catchphrase. And they haven’t been very quick to warn consumers of the adverse effects of eating too much added sugar, which nearly everyone does. Energy drinks, sports drinks, and fruit-flavored waters are some of the emptiest braggarts about the energy and nutritional benefits of sugar. Think about how many times you see famous athletes marketing sugar-filled sports drinks. The manufacturer wants the consumer to attribute to these sugary drinks muscle building, performance, and endurance.
Don’t get me wrong. There are times when these drinks can be beneficial. If you’re quarterbacking an NCAA game or competing in an Ironman, then sure, you’re going to need all the sugar and electrolytes you can get. But couch surfers and weekend gym warriors shouldn’t fool themselves. To your body, it’s essentially getting pretty colored sugar water.
Meanwhile, you don’t see commercials about how energizing a few glasses of water and a serving or two of fruit—rich in natural sugar, satiating fiber, and health-promoting phytochemicals—can be. In other words, the processed food industry perverts these claims into buzzwords to get your attention and raise their prices.