Chew on This

Watch for healthy labels that lead to overeating

Are your eating and snacking habits being influenced by a health halo?

That is what crosses my mind as clients happily tell me how many “healthy” granola bars they eat each day. When I point out that nutritionally some of these bars are about the same as a candy bar, they react with complete surprise.

Foods that are perceived to be better for you based on the label or brand, and are frequently overeaten, are wearing a health halo.

Research published this past May in the journal Food Quality and Preference illustrates this point. One hundred fifteen shoppers were recruited at a mall in Ithaca, New York. They were served three labeled and paired food items: potato chips, yogurt and a cookie. The items were labeled either organic or regular (in reality, all of the foods were organic, but the tasters were blind to this fact.)

After tasting, the subjects’ taste perceptions were surveyed.

The tasters believed the organic cookies and yogurt tasted lower in fat and calories when compared to their supposed non-organic counterparts. This led them to believe they were lower in calories. The organic cookies were also perceived to have more fiber.

This is a classic health halo and shows how perceptions influence taste.

The perception of fewer calories can lead to people eating more. This was the phenomenon dubbed the Snackwell Syndrome when the fat-free cookies became popular and folks would eat the whole bag thinking they were getting fewer calories. Not true — Snackwell cookies were loaded with sugar.

Interestingly, in this study, results on taste were not significant. Subjects did not find organic tastier. Previous research has shown that people think healthy food does not taste as good as what they perceive as unhealthy.

Remember the label is drawing you in and selling the product, but the nutrition facts label on the back of the product gives you the lowdown on what you are eating. Read it all and please keep an open mind about taste. Healthy tastes delicious.

Sheah Rarback is a registered dietitian on the faculty of the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine.

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