Has a bright and shiny natural, paleo, or gluten-free label ever absolved you of your food guilt or enticed you to eat more of a product than you normally would? Making the “right” food choices isn’t easy, especially with so many misleading marketing tactics – allow us to introduce the health halo effect and absence labelling.
Health halos occur through clever marketing, when food marketers bestow certain foods with a clean, innocent air, making them look and sound far more virtuous than they are – think terms such as artisanal, natural, and home-made. Similarly, absence labelling – for instance gluten-free, fat-free, GMO-free, can entice fearful buyers to opt for one product over the other, even if the absence should go without saying (case in point: gluten-free water).
While the nutritional labels on the back of foods are highly regulated (food manufacturers are legally obligated to print accurate information regarding calories, fat, sugar, and sodium), the information printed on the front of foods is less regulated and can be quite misleading.
Both health halos and absence labelling are ubiquitous in supermarkets – keep an eye out for the following:
Natural, traditional, and home-made
These terms of merit conjure images of farms and small-scale food production – when, more often than not, they are factory produced. The term “natural” is particularly disputed, with two main factors under the spotlight: the source of the food, and the way in which it was prepared. Following a strict logic, one might argue that only a hand-picked non-GMO fruit or vegetable could be considered truly natural.
The last few years has seen protein emerge from body-builder’s weight rooms to the mainstream. From protein bars, balls, and powders, to “regular” products with increased protein, consumers simply cannot get enough. Oftentimes, however, food marketers will underline a product’s high protein content while brushing over some of the less palatable ingredients added to achieve the hefty 20 grams of protein.
Once upon a time, gluten was nothing but an innocent protein found in most grains, but over the 2010s, it has risen to infamy as Public Enemy #1 in the food world. However, to make up for the gluten that gives bread and pastries their satisfying chewiness, food manufacturers often supplement with fat, sweeteners, or other additives – making some gluten-free options less wholesome than their original counterparts.
For those suffering from celiac disease, it certainly is something to avoid – apart from unpleasant side effects, it can also cause long-term damage to the gut lining. Not celiac? Stick to the original. Celiac? Read the label, and try to swap in processed foods for whole foods.
Fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes are an amazing plant-based addition to anyone’s diet, and they are 100% vegan. Unfortunately, high-fructose corn syrup and palm oil are also 100% vegan. You might assume that simply because a food (for instance vegan ice cream) is free of animal products, it’s automatically superior. And if you are following a vegan diet for ethical reasons, it certainly is. But if you’re focused on nutrition, it’s good to be aware that vegan ice cream tends to have a similar macronutrient profile (ie. calories, fat, and sugar) to regular ice cream.
Meat alternatives such as the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat have taken the food industry by storm with billion dollar valuations and cult-like followings. However, with 30+ ingredients, they’re both far more processed than your typical one-ingredient (ground meat) burgers. So before jumping on the bandwagon, consider your personal goals: if you’re aiming to reduce your carbon footprint and meat consumption (as we all should) they’re a fantastic option, but if you are aiming for minimally processed whole foods – it might be better to pass.
It is easy to fall into the vegan health halo trap – but a cupcake is still a cupcake, whether it uses palm oil in place of butter or not. By all means, enjoy your treats – vegan or not – but be aware that a green “V” sticker does not exonerate a food entirely.
Agave nectar & Honey
Though arguably much sexier-sounding than plain sugar, agave nectar is not without its faults. While its glycemic index is very low at around 20 (compared to 50 and 60 in maple syrup and honey respectively) it is high in fructose and should not be consumed mindlessly as a sugar replacement.
Experts also argue that honey also has an undeserved health halo. Though objectively “better” than refined sugar (which is entirely devoid of nutrients) thanks to the presence of bioactive plant compounds and antioxidants, it’s still fairly low in vitamins and minerals, and is still defined as an “added sugar” by Public Health England.
Since studies conclude that all sugars are nutritionally similar, enjoy them all in moderation and don’t go overboard with agave or coconut sugar under the assumption that it’s better than sugar.
The Bottom Line
Health means different things to different people. Remember that while no food is inherently good or bad, every food can serve a purpose to you. Some provide necessary nutritional value (think: broccoli, walnuts) while others just offer satisfaction (a glass of celebratory champagne, or a handful of chocolate candy). This is where mindfulness and acknowledging your dietary restriction and priorities come in.
Always bear in mind that oftentimes, in order to “free” a food of an “evil”, a different kind of “evil” needs to be added. Simply because a product was infused with turmeric, collagen, or kale, it doesn’t mean it’s better than the turmeric-free version (chances are, the amount of turmeric isn’t nearly enough to make an impact anyway). The health halo effect can also cause us to eat much more of a food than we want or need simply because we deem it better than its non-wholesome counterpart (think cauliflower pizza vs. regular pizza)
Our final advice: don’t judge a book by its cover – the back label is much more telling than the front. Acknowledge the front label, but really inspect the nutrition label for levels of saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium, as these listed components are much more accurate indicators of a food’s health than an unbacked marketing claim. Or, even better, opt mostly for foods that don’t even have a label.