Harmful Health Halos

24.9.2016 | 19:55

Food diet icon collection set, human health care diets such as gluten free, sugar free, nut free, GMO free, egg free, dairy free, nitrates free, trans fats free, cholesterol free.

You know about the “health halo” thing, right?

(Yes, it’s a thing.  And not a good thing, at least not in my opinion….)

Health halos come in many different forms – low-sodium, “heart-healthy,” gluten-free, no artificial colors or flavors….

Here’s the thing:  Removing one potentially harmful ingredient does not turn junk into a health food.

The Halloween candy being sold at Whole Foods or your local organic co-op is still candy.

Just because the added colors come from beet juice or turmeric, and they’re “fruit-juice sweetened,” does not mean that those lollipops aren’t still sugar bombs….

Fruit is healthy for most people because the hit of fructose is coupled with fiber – all that sugar doesn’t hit your system at one time.

Fruit juice is made by removing that fiber, so you lose that slowing down effect – and just get the sugar hit.

One thing I learned from a marvelous – and marvelously entertaining – book called The Dorito Effect, by Mark Schatzker, is that there is very little distinction between “natural” and “artificial” flavors.

The food scientists find the obsession with “natural flavors” most amusing – because they’re still being synthesized in a laboratory somewhere.  They just start with a “natural” source.

The term “spices” on a label almost seems pretty innocuous, right?

Well, guess what?

“Spices” can translate into “mostly MSG.”

That’s right – if the amount of MSG is below a specified limit, it doesn’t need to be called MSG on the label.

Low fat zone text concept isolated over white background

And then there are all of the current buzzwords:  low-sodium, low-fat, fat-free, sugar-free, gluten-free….

I won’t go into the nuances of specific labels – that information is available elsewhere – but there are so many variations … to be called “low-sodium,” a product has to meet a specific percentage of sodium.  “Reduced sodium” is not the same as “low-sodium.”

“Reduced fat” is not the same as “low-fat.”

All of these labels have very specific definitions, depending on the percentage of the offending ingredient.  It can be crazy-making….

When it comes to the business of processed foods, there is a very careful formula for making foods taste perfect to the standard palate.

If you tamper with one of the big three – fat, sugar or salt – you’ve got to make up the difference, right?

Or it’s not going to taste good.

And if it doesn’t taste good, you lose market share.

Hand writing Low Sodium with marker, health concept background

You may have noticed that the food industry is very competitive.

Removing the fat from a processed food removes a lot of what makes it satisfying to the consumer – so the fat is often replaced by increased amounts of sugar.

Removing the salt … well, if you’ve ever had a canned tomato soup or bottled tomato juice with “no salt added” on the label, you know how good that tastes….

And then there are the sugar-free products – filled with even less-healthy artificial sweeteners, most of the time.

It’s a toss-up, really – we all know how bad sugar is for us, but artificial sweeteners may cause even more harm.

So “sugar-free” on a label does not necessarily mean it’s a chocolate bar you want to be eating….

And the replacements for gluten in a product can be just as bad as the sugar substitutes – although many of them are as high on the Glycemic Index as … well, sugar!!

a sugar free word with background - still life

I don’t care about whether a food manufacturer wants to put “low-sodium” or “fat-free” on their product label.

What I do care about is the aura that can give to a food – the “health halo” that leads the average consumer to think it’s a healthier product.

Many people really believe that “heart-healthy” on a label means that a processed food will be good for them to eat if they’re struggling with heart disease.


But maybe not.

“Gluten-free” is only one of the latest and most common health halos in the processed food industry.  It’s a niche market that has grown exponentially over the past several years.

But the problem is that these foods aren’t necessarily healthy for you.

If you’re extremely sensitive to gluten, obviously they’ll be much easier for you to digest.

But that doesn’t mean they’re foods you should be eating.

Let’s face it; we all know we should try to eat mostly fresh, whole foods – the ones that don’t have labels in the first place.

It’s hard for a bunch of collard greens or a Granny Smith apple to have a health halo – they’re just wholesome, healthy foods (for most people).

But sometimes we have to navigate the labels.

Here’s a helpful hint:

Don’t pay attention to those bright, cheerful flags on the front of the box, the ones with large fonts that are easy to see, proclaiming “sugar-free” or “reduced sodium.”

Read the ingredient list, and check the nutrition facts – yes, those are the bits in the very small print, and they provide the most important information on the package.

Angel & Devil Concept - Vector File EPS10

Don’t be fooled by the angelic halo on a product that’s playing the very devil with your health….


  1. Brad
    October 30, 2016 | 5:22 pm

    Being ingredient savvy is the approach for me. The big labels are marketing and gloss. Thanks for spreading the clarity!

    • daletchworth
      October 30, 2016 | 10:51 pm

      Yes, it’s the small labels where you find the important information! Thanks, Brad.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *