The Top Health Halo Food Terms That Confuse You

Health Writer

If you’re a typical consumer interested in health or dieting, then you probably spend time reading labels and making (what you think are) the best choices when it comes to foods and drinks.  Well, the advertising industry knows that, and so it tries to lure you into certain purchases.  No surprise there, BUT,  particular words and phrases that are being used to catch your eye and make you buy are sometimes hefty in definition but lightweight in health reality.

In fact, researchers from Switzerland found that when consumers were given identical boxes of cereal, with detailed nutrition information on the package, the cereal box that listed sugar (fructose) as “fruit sugar,” prompted consumers to choose it rather than the same box with a listing of "sugar."

The impact of adding the word fruit, to the description of a not-so-healthy ingredient commands attention and promotes even discerning consumers to buy.  What's more, it’s an advertising approach used all the time.

In the Swiss study, 164 individuals, a majority of them men, were shown identical nutrition labels except for one word.  In the above case, the label said sugar and another label said fruit sugar.  The subjects were then asked questions regarding the health of the two products.  Although they were the same product, the cereal with the ingredient sugar was deemed less healthy than the cereal with the fruit sugar ingredient.

I’ve written about the power of the health halo as far back as 2008, and it seems like food manufacturers and advertisers keep perfecting its use.  Based on this study, it’s clear that the use of certain words on a label may preempt even the best of us from further evaluation of a food or drink.  Young moms seem to gravitate to foods where honey or maple syrup or even fruit sugar is substituted for sugar or fructose as a sweetener - especially when the label highlights this swap out.

Non-GMO and GMO labeling is also certainly yielding heft among certain consumers, who may be willing to pay more for foods with the non-GMO label, despite the science still not clear on the impact of GMO ingredients.  Gluten-free has been trending strong even among consumers who have no gluten issues, simply because there’s been an ongoing effort by individuals to suggest its health benefits compared to traditional grain products.  But if you don’t have celiac disease or a true allergy to gluten there is simply no science to back choosing gluten-free foods.  And if a very processed food is labeled gluten free, it is still very processed and likely unhealthy.

The Swiss researchers concluded that “symbolic information,” their term for words that suggest a health halo, is an important factor in how consumers assess and choose one food over another, even when two products are the same in nutrition content.  It really is bias-provoking advertising at its best.  Here are some of the top terms aimed to confuse you:** Natural** – What does that really mean?  There’s no FDA approved definition, so a food can contain more than one type of added sugar and still use the term natural on its label.

Made with organic ingredients – Some of the ingredients may indeed be organic in nature, but a whole host of other ingredients may be unhealthy.  The fact that the word organic appears as part of the label makes consumers more likely to buy it - and pay more.

Locally sourced – That can be a good thing because it may mean that the food items are fresher or did not travel long distances before arriving on your local supplier shelf. This may be a plus when it comes to produce,   but there are no real standards with regards to the use of this term, and the product can still be unhealthy (locally sourced pies).  Even if all the ingredients are held to a higher standard (quite often you will not get an ingredient list), these foods can still be unhealthy caloric treats.

Grass fed – You may like to see this term when it comes to buying beef or dairy products but it is not synonymous with the term organic.  Many consumers think it is.

This deceptive advertising is a case of buyer beware and buyer be cautious.  It’s probably a good idea to be skeptical, and spend some time really evaluating the foods and beverages you choose to buy.

You may also enjoy reading:

When Healthy Labels and Trends Stretch the Truth

Calorie Counts on Foods May Be Lying

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