Junk Food in Disguise

Just because it’s all-natural doesn’t make it good for you. How to shop the all-natural grocery store.

Monica Reinagel, M.S.,L.D./N
4-minute read
Episode #63

Joy emailed me this week with a great question. She’s wondering how to gauge the healthfulness of the snacks she sees at natural foods stores like Trader Joe’s. 

"I bought honey-roasted sunflower seeds and flaxseed corn chips, thinking that these were somewhat healthy (compared to Doritos, anyway). Does adding things like flaxseed to unhealthy things like corn chips make them more worthwhile? But does adding flavorings to seeds or nuts make them less healthy?"

Joy, you have put your finger on a phenomenon called the “health halo effect.” This is where people over-estimate the nutritional value of a food that’s labeled “whole-grain” or “gluten-free.” Or, they under-estimate the negative impact of a food because it contains a healthful ingredient like flaxseed.

Magical Crackers Erase Calories

My favorite illustration of the health halo effect is an experiment John Tierney did last year in Brooklyn. He stopped a bunch of people on the street, showed them a photograph of a meal, and asked them to estimate how many calories the meal contained.

The photo showed typical meal from a chain restaurant--one of those crunchy Asian chicken salads and a soda. On average, people estimated that the meal contained about 1,000 calories, which was a little high. It actually contained a little over 900 calories.

Then he stopped a bunch more people and showed them a photo of the same salad and soda, plus two crackers that were labeled “trans-fat free.” And get this: the average calorie estimate for the meal with the crackers was about 800 calories…two hundred calories less than the average estimate for same meal without the crackers. This despite the fact that the crackers actually added a hundred calories to the meal!

The health halo conferred by three little words (trans-fat free) not only cancelled out the calories in the crackers themselves, it erased a hundred calories from the salad sitting next to them--at least in people’s minds.

Don’t Be Blinded By the Health Halo

Don’t think that food manufacturers haven’t figured this out! Pick up a box of Trix or Lucky Charms and it’s hard to miss the fact that these cereals are now made with whole grains--nothing but the best for our kids! They’re hoping you won’t notice that each serving also contains 3 heaping teaspoons of white death, I mean, sugar.

You have to be particularly on guard against the health halo effect when you shop at natural or whole foods stores. Everything in the store seems so virtuous. The chips are gluten-free, the sugar is organic, and the bacon is free-range. There are flax seeds on the waffles, green tea in the ice cream, and the sodas are sweetened with pure cane sugar--no high fructose corn syrup here!

The glare from all those health halos can be blinding. It tends to lull people into thinking that they don’t need to pay attention to what they’re buying. They figure if it’s being sold in a store like this, it must be good for you.

But glue a flaxseed to a corn chip and you have, well, a corn chip plus a flaxseed. The lack of flaxseeds is not the thing that makes corn chips not-so-good-for-you--it’s the salt and the fat and the fact that, given the chance, corn chips will happily take up the space in your life that would otherwise be occupied by actual vegetables.