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Health halo effect - don't fall for the hype

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Methodist Health System Manager of Employee Wellness, Caroline Susie, explains what you need to watch out for on food labels.

"Made with Agave", "All Natural", "Gluten Free." We've all heard or read these phrases before. They adorn food packages to make you feel better about eating or drinking what's inside. The labels are designed to make you think the food is healthy when in reality, these foods may not be any healthier than its less-expensive rivals. In some cases, the food may not be healthy at all. This is spin, and you just fell for it.

The phrase "Health Halo" means there is a halo effect on certain foods, causing us to be perceive them as healthy. Research shows that we consume more of a food if we think it's healthy.

Health halos can be claims about anything: calories, fat, sodium, sugar, cholesterol, the list goes on and on. Here are a few of the top offenders:

"Natural" is by far the most popular health halo. This word has no formal definition. Natural does not mean organic nor does it mean a food is healthy.

"Gluten Free," according to the FDA, means that food must limit the presence of gluten. Gluten-free does not indicate that a food is whole grain, organic, or healthy. Many gluten-free foods are highly processed and high in sugar and salt. Contrary to popular belief, a gluten-free diet does not yield long-term weight loss. A gluten-free diet is appropriate for folks who have been diagnosed with celiac disease. (If you think you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, contact your primary care physician to review diagnostic tests and next steps.)

"Local" should indicate where the food was produced. Like the above terms, it is not defined. Was the food grown down the road or 500 miles away? Local also does not mean organic, nor does it mean it's healthy or more nutritious.

"Organic" foods should have the green USDA Organic seal that indicates that the food was produced without synthetic pesticides, GMOs, or petroleum fertilizers. For meats, this seal means animals were fed organic, vegetarian feed and were provided access to outdoors, and not treated with hormones or antibiotics. 100% organic = 100% organic ingredients. Here are the differentiating terms: "organic" means food was made with at least 95% organic ingredients. "Made with organic ingredients" means it was made with 70% organic ingredients. But don't be confused, organic does not mean healthy. Current literature has not proven that there is any significant difference in nutrition in organic versus non-organic. The difference is in the farming method. After all, there are organic cookies and candy!

"Grass fed" does not mean the cattle's feed is organic, and it doesn't mean they cannot be given hormones or antibiotics. According to the USDA, cattle must be fed only mother's milk and forage during their lifetime. Grass-fed dairy and meat have been shown to contain more good for you fats and less bad for you fats, in addition to higher levels of antioxidants.

Avoid being influenced by buzzwords, slogans or images. Be a nutrition detective and check out the ingredients list on the nutrition facts panel. Dietitian tip: read the ingredients list on the food label. It's the only way to know what is in the food.

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