Chew on This

Just because food is marketed as healthy, doesn’t mean it is

If I were spotted eating from a bag of quinoa chips the reaction would probably be, “Wow, quinoa that must be healthy.” And if I was spied munching down some potato chips the reaction might be, “Can you believe what she is eating. I’m taking a picture.”

In term of calories, fat, sodium, and fiber, these two chips are very similar. The difference is the quinoa chip has a health halo. The health halo is when a product is perceived to be healthier because of an ingredient, like quinoa, or a confusing phrase such as natural. Natural means a product does not contain artificial flavor or substances. It doesn’t mean nutritious or lower in calories.

A study last December from the journal Appetite confirmed the power of the health halo. Subjects evaluated two cereals based on their ingredient label. One cereal’s ingredient list stated sugar and the other fruit sugar. The product containing fruit sugar was perceived as healthier. They are the same. Other names for sugar found on labels are evaporated cane juice, turbinado, beet sugar and fruit juice concentrate. It could be up to a two-year wait until we see the new Nutrition Facts label that will identify the amount of added sugar. Until then do your detective work on the ingredient label.

Health halos impact portions. Numerous studies have shown that people underestimate calories and take larger portions when a food is perceived to be “healthier.” This is most pronounced with reduced fat. Often the reduced fat food has sugar added to maintain taste and texture.

The health halo that bugs me the most is gluten free. If one has celiac disease or confirmed gluten intolerance then yes, they should eat gluten free. That said, there is no benefit for anyone else to be eating gluten free. It is not more nutritious and is often more expensive. Jimmy Kimmel did an excellent investigation into this topic and I share it here.

Sheah Rarback is a registered dietitian on the faculty of the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine. Follow her on Twitter @sheahrarback.