Understanding Food Labels: What Are Health Halos
April 15, 2022
In 1920 psychologist Edward L Thorndike observed that military officers ranked their subordinates based on what they felt were positive and negative traits. For example, an attractive, tall soldier was perceived to be more intelligent and of better character. Thorndike coined the term “halo effect” based on this principle. Judging someone by a limited set of traits will give us an inaccurate picture of their true character. A halo can be over a person, a workplace, an organization, or a marketing plan, which is where we’re going to focus.
Consumers are bombarded with food choices and nutrition claims, but those claims don’t always represent reality. Here are some of the most common claims on Front of Package (FOP) that can be considered health halos:
The label “organic” means that the product was not grown with most pesticides and herbicides—better for the planet, farmworkers, and for you and your family. What it doesn’t mean is that it is healthier. Organic sugar is still sugar. You might feel better about where it comes from, but if you want to optimize your health, you will want to curb your sugar intake.
The results of one study: “Results showed that providing an organic label leads to a higher overall liking, willingness to pay and lower kcal estimation of a food product regardless of the evaluation context.”
Calorie claims are the most popular product claims that manufacturers make, and consumers pay attention to them. Calorie-free means just that, and many of these foods contain artificial sweeteners. Reduced or fewer calories means that the food product must have twenty-five percent fewer calories than the reference food. Lite or Light is defined as fifty percent reduced-fat if more than half of the total calories are from fat.
This doesn’t mean that the altered food itself is healthier than the original. Look at the ingredients and portion sizes of the original product and the altered product to ascertain which food is best for you.
Natural on a food package really doesn’t mean anything other than the original food was natural. Don’t give this claim any value.
Gluten-free is not always a healthier option. Some gluten-free foods can contain highly processed ingredients, and additional sugar—just look at some gluten-free cold cereal boxes. If you cannot consume gluten, become a label reader, and do not assume non-gluten is healthier.
Nut milk, oat milk, and other non-dairy ‘milks,’ may contain quite a bit of sugar, very few nuts, and other ingredients that are less than optimal such as carrageenan. Here is a recipe to make your own.
Nut Milk Recipe
Homemade nut milk is so easy to make and much healthier than most purchased nut milks
- 1 cup raw almonds, or other nuts
- 4 cups water*
- 2 dates, or other sweeteners, optional
- Soak the raw nuts in water for at least 2 hours, or preferably overnight. Drain.
- Place the nuts and the four cups of fresh water in a blender and blend on high for 3-4 minutes. The mixture will look white.
- Strain the pulp by using a colander lined with cheesecloth. Gather the cheesecloth, twist it and squeeze. Softer nuts like cashews do not need to be strained. Store in a jar in the refrigerator. Enjoy!
Tips and Notes:
- Use less water: If you like you may use two cups of water instead of four for a creamier nut milk
- Reduce Food Waste. Save the pulp and add to pancakes or cookies or your next batch of muffins.
Grass-fed is a term that allows some wiggle room for ranchers. The USDA allows companies to make variations of this claim, such as “grass-fed 100 days prior to slaughter.” There are no regulations for dairy so each dairy can determine its own definition. There are organizations that certify that claims are in fact true and include American Grassfed, Certified Grassfed by AGW, and NOFA-NY Certified.
The terms free-range, cage-free eggs, and pasture-raised can be very misleading. There might be thousands of chickens stuffed inside a barn or a small door where the chickens can get out to pasture if they find the door–but they are not in cages so they can make one of these claims. The term pasture-raised is the safest term to look for when purchasing eggs.
In the later 20th century, low fat was all the rage, but we now know that low fat is not always healthier as the food manufacturers exchanged fat for sugar to improve the mouthfeel of the food. Check the label for sugar, and other ingredients that are less than desirable.
No added sugar or sugar-free
No added sugar or sugar-free can mean that ingredients in that product are naturally high in sugar. Dried fruit is an example. Also, be wary that the product might contain sugar substitutes which can be an unhealthy choice. Also, ‘raw sugar’ is still just sugar in your body.
Fruit flavored can mean that the product contains a chemical that tastes like fruit but does not actually contain any fruit.
At first glance, consuming different grains can sound like a great idea, but are these grains refined? Stick with whole or intact grains. Intact means the grain is in its natural state and has never been altered. Whole-grain can mean that the original grain was divided, and parts are in the product, but they were added back separately. Intact is best—think steel-cut oats.
Dietary Fiber can be naturally occurring (also called intrinsic) or if the product says added fiber, did they add fiber back in because they stripped it all out previously? If they added it back in, is it synthetic? Here is a list of types of fiber to watch for. Look for intact or whole grains, which don’t need fiber added back in because the original fiber was not stripped away. To read more about food labels, click here and here.
Diets and Health Halos
We are all biochemical individuals and what works for one person might not work for another. There are those on the high-fat ketogenic diet who thrive and those who do not. The same could be said for the paleo diet, or any other type of diet. As an eating style becomes popular, we start to see the diet’s claims on food packages. Keto-friendly, paleo-friendly, and more. They are not necessarily healthier. Look at the label—many contain sugar alcohols which may cause digestive distress in some. Be cautious with labels on specific diets.
At Foogal, we have no dietary dogma. As our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Robert Lustig, puts it, “I’m not against the vegan diet, I’m also not for it. I’m not against keto, but I’m not for it. Basically, I am for real food.”
Functional Food Claims
There are three categories of claims that are defined by statute and/or FDA regulations: health claims, nutrient content claims, and structure/function claims. These claims must be supported by scientific evidence, and there needs to be scientific agreement among qualified experts.
There also must be a correlation between a food or food component and the reduction of risk of a certain disease or health-related condition. An example is that dietary fiber has been shown to improve gut health and reduce the risk of some cancers. The food or food product needs to be at least 5 grams or more fiber to make the claim of high-fiber food. The tricky part of health claims is that you should read all ingredients before ascertaining if that one component makes the product healthier, as you read in dietary fiber, above. The fiber might have been stripped and put back in.
To read more, click here.
How Foogal can help
These health halo messages confuse consumers, do not help to educate, or inform, and are often in conflict with reliable health information. Serving sizes are a source of confusion for consumers as well. Another problem is that some people will eat more of a low-calorie or no-added-sugar product, which defeats the point and can potentially cause health problems, such as obesity, high sodium intake, etc.
At Foogal, we want to support you on your journey to maintain or obtain good health. We offer health information that you need to make healthy food decisions. We have recipes for many cuisines, dietary needs, and ease of preparation. Our chef-created recipes are filtered for dietary fiber and added sugar, and you can easily look at the nutrients at the bottom of each recipe. You’ll see we offer many more nutrient analyses than your average food label so you can see a bigger nutrient profile, which is helpful for making dietary decisions.
We all know that avoiding food with labels is ideal. Baked chicken, brown rice, and broccoli do not contain labels, so there none of the above concerns apply. We also understand that sometimes making home-cooked meals is not always possible. For those times when you can’t make your own meals, do become a label-reader, and understand all the buzzwords and hype.
We want to support you even if it’s on a day when you don’t log into the Foogal App and use one of our recipes. Here are some ideas when you have little time to cook, or simply don’t want to. These are food assembly ideas:
- Purchase a rotisserie chicken and cook some frozen veggies.
- Many salad bars offer health-supporting choices. Watch for most salad dressings! If you bring the salads home to eat, use your own salad dressing, or simply toss them with olive oil and lemon.
- Spread a Romain lettuce leaf with your favorite salad dressing or guacamole or hummus and place some leftovers (some of that Rotisserie chicken perhaps?) and whatever else you have on hand on the leaf. Roll up and enjoy. You can place the leaf on a tortilla if you like.
Michele Anna Jordan’s Grilled Sausages with Roasted Sweet Potatoes
Nicole Avena’s Zoodles with Creamy Pesto
Ed Bauman’s So Thai, So Good Chicken
We hope you love them! Let us know what you think and if you’d like to see more recipes for a certain cuisine or eating style. We’re here for your good health!