Have you fallen victim to the “health halo”?

Grocery shopping, like laundry, dishes, or any other revolving chore, has become increasingly complicated as it’s difficult to see through eye-catching product marketing to gauge the real value of the product. Food manufacturers are no different. They have designed deceptive front packages to appear healthy.

Picture your last grocery shopping experience.

You entered the grocery store armed with a list and iron-clad determination that this will be a quick stick-to-the-list run.  Maybe you started in the snack aisle hoping to find some quick healthy bites to keep in your pantry.  You couldn't help but notice the front of a granola bar package:

Front of Coffee vanilla almond latte Clif Bar showing a person climbing up the side of a clif

The image of an incredibly fit young man, with his rock-solid calf and bicep muscles on full display as he quite literally scales a cliff, dominates the front of the granola bar package.

Obviously, this granola bar was the healthiest option, right? I mean, the mountain climber on the packaging has zero percent body fat for crying-out-loud!

This patina of health is something I like to refer to as the Health Halo. If we flip that enticing package over and read the nutrition information on the back label, it’s clear we’ve been hoodwinked:

Check list: 1) Check calorie density. Calories per serving < Grams per serving; 2) Check sodium. Mg of Sodium < Calories; 3) Check ingredient list. No sugar or sugar words listed in first 3-5 ingredients. No saturated fats listed.
Ingredients and Nutrition facts for the above mentioned Clif bar. Under ingredients, "brown rice syrup", "cane syrup", "cane sugar", "cocoa butter" and "sea salt" are highlighted. Under Nutrition Facts, the following is highlighted: Serving size 68g, Calories per serving 250, Sodium 260mg

This granola bar may be perfectly fine for an extreme endurance athlete who is out rock climbing all day because his macronutrient requirements are drastically higher than most grocery shoppers. However, it would not meet the Pritikin standard for a heart-healthy choice that promotes weight maintenance.  Pritikin patients are taught to discern food labels through a Pritikin lens.

A food’s calorie density is determined by comparing the calories per serving and the weight of the serving.  The Pritikin recommendation is for the calories per serving to be less than the weight in grams.  In this example, the calories are 3.6 x the weight of the bar, indicating that it is extremely calorically dense.

The recommended way to assess sodium content is to compare the milligrams of sodium to the calories.  It is recommended that the milligrams of sodium be less than the calories.  In this example, the milligrams of sodium are slightly more than the calories, indicating that this granola bar would not pass the test for sodium content.

The last item to check is the ingredient list.  Our patients are taught to check for any sugar or what we've termed as “sugar words” (like rice syrup, honey, dextrose, etc.) in the first 3-5 ingredients.  They are also taught to look for any saturated fats.  In this example, the first and fourth words are “brown rice syrup” and “cane syrup” which are both “sugar words.”  Also listed is cocoa butter which is a significant source of saturated fat.

The Health Halo extends beyond crafty food packaging.  If you’ve ever walked into one of those “organic,” “non-GMO,” “its-from-the-earth-man” type of grocery stores, you’ll immediately know what I mean.  Just by virtue of standing in the store you immediately just feel healthier.  The Health Halo surrounding the cookies, crackers, and chips lining the shelves can easily trick us into thinking they are a healthy option.   Pritikin’s quick and efficient checklist is just one of many tools we can use to outsmart the “Health Halo.”

For contrast, let’s try assessing a pop-tart label.  Pop-tarts are generally marketed as breakfast treats for kids rather than a healthy snack for an athlete.

The front of a strawberry pop tart box and next to it, the nutrition label, highlighted items include: "Serving Size (25g)", "Calories 200", "Sodium 170mg". Under Ingredients, the following is highlighted: "Corn Syrup", "High Fructose Corn Syrup", "Dextrose" and "Sugar"

When you look at the back, you’ll notice that these pop-tarts are eerily familiar to that granola bar we looked at earlier.  The calories in the pop-tart are 3.8 x the weight in grams.  The second, third and fourth words in the ingredient list are sugar words.  Palm oil, a saturated fat source is also listed.  In fact, the only Pritikin label-reading test that these pop-tarts pass is the sodium test as the milligrams of sodium is slightly less than the calories.

At first glance, you would think that the granola bar is significantly healthier than the pop tart if you saw these products side-by-side in the grocery aisle.

Images of the front of packages Clif bar from above and strawberry pop tarts

However, analyzing the labels through a Pritikin lens reveals that they aren’t that different.

The Health Halo is here to stay.  It’s up to us as health-conscious consumers to analyze food labels and discern if a food is truly supportive for our heart-health and weight management.  Pritikin provides tools, like our label reading guidelines, for us to do that quickly and efficiently.

Knowing how to outsmart the Health Halo by analyzing food labels this way is liberating.  You can still choose to buy those food products that don’t meet the Pritikin heart-healthy guidelines – but it won’t be because the Health Halo tricked you into it.