Health halo

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While it is not necessarily a new concept, the term ‘health halo’ may be a term that most are not familiar with.

A “health halo” occurs when a single health buzzword or claim causes a consumer (that’s you) to have positive impressions of a product. For example, food packaging labels that contain the words “low-fat,” “sugar-free” or “gluten-free” are often incorrectly assumed to be healthy options and drive us to purchase these items solely based on those claims.

Other terms that come to mind when I think of health halos and common misconceptions that surround healthy eating are “organic” and “all-natural.”

We tend to instinctively reach for these items because they scream healthy. But does the evidence really back that up? Are those items any more healthy than their “regular” counterparts? As a registered dietitian and Extension Educator, it is my duty to help the community recognize and understand misleading food labels so that you can feel more confident as you stroll through the grocery store.

Let’s take a look at a few specific examples.

Low-fat or fat-free products. Many people reach for these types of products because they assume lower fat means lower calories. However, taking the fat out of products takes away from texture and flavor and because bad tasting food doesn't sell, fat is often replaced with salt and sugar. In some instances, those low-fat products could end up with just as many or more calories than the original version.

On a similar note, there are sugar-free products. These products are typically marketed towards individuals with high blood sugar. It’s assumed that since items are sugar-free they won’t affect your blood sugar. This in fact, is not correct.

Three sugar-free chocolate chip cookies contain 150 calories, 20 grams of carbohydrates, and 0 grams of sugar.

On the other hand, three regular Chips Ahoy! chocolate chip cookies contain 160 calories, 22 grams of carbohydrates, and 11 grams of sugar.

So while the first option is definitely lower in sugar, it still contains almost the same amount of carbohydrates which will still affect blood sugar levels. Remember, sugar-free does not mean carbohydrate-free.

Fruit juices are another product that tend to have a health halo lingering around them. Fruit juices may seem like a good choice especially when they are labeled with appealing terms like “all natural.” But many juices contain added sugar and no fiber. Just because something is “all natural” or “organic” does not mean it is nutritious.

Instead, choose whole fruits. A medium size orange contains less calories, less sugar, and more fiber making it more filling compared to an 8 oz glass of orange juice.

Does this mean I am saying you should never buy low-fat and sugar-free products or fruits juices ever again? No, but what I want for you to get out of this more than anything is a better understanding of the meaning and context around health halos.

Of course there are several more products that’d love to spend time talking about (coconut oil and protein bars to name a couple) but I’ll save those for another day.

So, the next time you find yourself comparing items in the grocery store aisles, take a minute to consider the best option. When in doubt, check the nutrition fact labels and ingredient lists to avoid those health halos.

Jordan Luxa is a Food, Nutrition and Health educator for Nebraska Extension in Washington County. She can be contacted at 402-426-9455, jordan.luxa@unl.edu, or visit the Washington County Extension website at www.washington.unl.edu.

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