Not So Angelic – the Problem with Health Halos

Pop quiz time – don’t worry, it’s only three questions:

  1. There is obviously no fat in Fat Free fig newtons. How many grams are in regular fig newtons (2 cookie serving)?
  2. There is 15 grams of carbohydrate in ½ cup of Breyers Original Vanilla, Chocolate, Strawberry ice cream. How much carbohydrate is in a ½ cup of Breyers no sugar added Vanilla, Chocolate, Strawberry ice cream?
  3. There are 3 grams of sugar in two Tbsp of JIF Extra Crunchy peanut butter. How much is in 2 Tbsp of JIF Natural Crunchy peanut butter?

There, now was that so bad? Scroll to the bottom to check your answers.

Health halos are misleading terminology that tricks you into thinking that a food is healthier than it actually is:

Natural – There is no formal definition for the term natural. The Food and Drug Administration is ok with the term being used on foods that do not contain any added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. Natural does not mean organic. It also doesn’t mean that a food is healthier (lower in sugar, calories, or fat or higher in fiber, vitamins, or minerals) than similar products that aren’t labeled as natural. “Natural” meat and poultry is not necessarily organic.

Gluten-Free –. Processed gluten-free foods (such as crackers, cookies, or muffins) often contain more sugar and salt, and less fiber than gluten-containing products. No one would argue that naturally gluten-free foods, including fruits, vegetables, brown rice, quinoa, oats, lean meats, or milk are healthy foods that everyone should be eating more of on a daily basis. female-1312656_1280

Low-fat and Fat-Free Foods – Fat contains 9 calories per gram, so if you cut two grams of fat from a serving of food, you’re only saving yourself a measly 18 calories. And sugar or other calorie-containing ingredients are often added to make a low-fat or fat-free food taste better. In fact, these foods often contain more calories per serving than the traditional variety.

Sugar-free or Reduced-Sugar foods – It is not uncommon for someone newly diagnosed with diabetes, or someone who is just concerned about the healthfulness of their diet, to reach for the lower-in-sugar varieties of ice cream, cookies, candy, etc. Unfortunately, these foods not only frequently contain at least as much carbohydrate as regular foods, but they often contain more fat and questionable artificial sweeteners.

Eight Foods that Might Not be as Healthy as You Think

  • Yogurt (including Greek yogurt) – check the sugar content before grabbing a spoon
  • Granola – can contain up to 600 calories and 30 grams of fat in a cup
  • Bottled smoothies – often contain ginormous amounts of sugar
  • Honey – sugar is sugar, and honey is as bad for your health as white table sugar
  • Pretzels – while they might be low-fat, they are also devoid of nutrients and are not likely to leave you feeling full and satisfied
  • Salads – be wary of cheese, croutons, bacon, breaded chicken, dried fruits, too many nuts, and salad dressings that are high in fat, calories, and/or sugar
  • Fruit juice – often loaded with sugar, and with none of the fiber found in whole, fresh fruit
  • Ground turkey – unless it’s labeled as “ground turkey breast” or “lean ground turkey”, it can contain as many calories and as much fat as ground beef

So, what can you do to avoid being fooled? The most important things are to look at the ingredient list and to compare comparable food products to each other whenever possible. I’m a registered dietitian and I have to do these things every time that I go to the grocery store; food companies are unbelievably tricky and savvy about what consumers are likely to notice first when perusing the food aisle. Sugar can be listed as dozens of different things on ingredient lists, including but not limited to: anhydrous dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fruit juice concentrate, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, and cane crystals.  Remember that ingredients are listed in terms of proportion – a food contains the most of those ingredients listed first on the list, and the least of those ingredients listed last on the list.

  1. 2 grams of fat
  2. 13 grams of carbohydrate
  3. 3 grams of sugar