Walk into any supermarket and odds are you will be bombarded with powerful food marketing. Enter the world of “health halos”. Health halos are foods or words that consumers associate with better health. Companies love health halos because they bring in a lot of money, but you may be paying for something that won’t actual benefit you. Navigating the web of marketing words is a tricky business. However, learning just a few of the main health halo terms will give you some ammunition on your next trip to the grocery store.
Does this word make your ears perk up? If so, you are not alone. It provokes a pleasant idea that the food is completely unprocessed. The term “natural” is one of the most prolific marketing terms out there. Here’s the catch-“natural” is completely meaningless on packaged foods. Although all ingredients must be of plant or animal origin, these raw materials can be processed into whatever the manufacturer pleases. Check out the ingredient list of “natural” snack mixes or toaster pastries. I bet you will struggle to find any ingredient reminiscent of its plant or animal origin.
The term “natural” does carry some weight in at least one area of the supermarket though. In the meat, poultry, and fish section, “natural” means the animal was raised without growth promoters, antibiotics, or animal by-products. It also means that the product contains no added food coloring. This might seem like a strange concept, but farmed salmon is naturally grey. A diet heavy in corn pellets, and devoid of pigment-containing krill, forces producers to dye it pink for aesthetic reasons. This makes buying “natural” meats worth your money, but don’t bother spending more money for “natural” junk food. Its a food marketing trap.
This is one term you’ll see that actually means something. Standards for obtaining “organic” certification on products are very stringent and well regulated by the USDA. In order for something to be certified organic, no hormones, antibiotics, or GMOs (genetically modified organisms) can be used during production. There are also restrictions on what kinds of pesticides can be used, how much, and the level of residue on a food. Under the “organic” umbrella, there are various subcategories you should be aware of. These include:
- “100% Organic”: all ingredients meet the organic standards; can use the USDA Certified Organic Seal
- “95% Organic”: at least 95% of the ingredients meet the organic standards; can use the USDA Certified Organic Seal
- “Made with Organic Ingredients”: at least 70% of the ingredients meet organic standards
- Organic Meats and Poultry: product must have never received hormones or antibiotics throughout its lifespan
It is important to keep in mind that “organic” doe not necessarily mean healthier. An interesting study found that people perceive organic cookies to be lower in calories and fat than regular cookies. Far from the truth. Also, the jury is still out on whether or not organic foods contain more nutrients than conventionally grown ones. These facts may be discouraging to all you organic cookie lovers out there, but at least you’re guaranteed less chemicals in your cookie (silver lining, right?)
“Made with Whole Grains”
There are no regulations surrounding the percentage of grains that must be “whole” to qualify for this label. There could be 1% whole grains in an otherwise processed, nutritionally-devoid junk product and it could still say “made with whole grains”. Check the label. Ingredients are listed in the order of abundance. If a “100% whole grain” isn’t listed as the first ingredient, the product isn’t doing much for your whole grain quota.
In order for a products to be labeled “reduced,” it simply needs to have 25% less of something than the original product. For example, if an original canned soup had 1500 mg of sodium per serving, the “reduced salt” version could have 1125mg of sodium and still be labeled “reduced”. The key is to remember that “reduced” does not indicate “low”. In order for this same soup to be “low sodium”, it would need less than 140 mg of sodium per serving. This “reduced sodium” soup is anything but low. Your best bet? Once again, read labels. Always.
There are a lot more terms out there meant to confuse you at the supermarket. The biggest lesson from all this that you can’t trust the front of the package. Bold words, catchy colors and health halos are rampant and relatively unregulated. The best way to ensure you are eating healthy, is to flip the package over. Look at serving size and nutrient levels per serving. Look at the ingredients. And most importantly, strive to be an educated consumer. Hungry for more? Bonnie Giller from BRB Health Solutions talks more about the power of words in marketing.
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BRB Health Solutions is a blog written and maintained byBonnie Giller, MS, RD, CDN, CDE. Bonnie is one of Around the Plate’s Nutrition Experts and a member of thePlate Community. As a Nutrition Expert, Bonnie makes eating healthy simple. Find other healthy eating champions, nutrition experts, and recipe gurus on our community blog network.