Diet-to-Go Blog
  1. Nutrition Diva: Beware of Junk Foods in Disguise

    Special for
    by Monica Reinagel, host of
    Nutrition Diva

    Joy emailed me this week with a great question. She's wondering how to gauge the healthfulness of the snacks she sees at natural foods stores like Trader Joe's.

    "I bought honey-roasted sunflower seeds and flaxseed corn chips," she writes, "thinking that these were somewhat healthy (compared to Doritos, anyway). Does adding things like flaxseed to unhealthy things like corn chips make them more worthwhile? But does adding flavorings to seeds or nuts make them less healthy?"

    Joy, you have put your finger on a phenomenon called the "health halo effect." This is where people over-estimate the nutritional value of a food that's labeled "whole-grain" or "gluten-free." Or, they under-estimate the negative impact of a food because it contains a healthful ingredient like flaxseed.

    To hear the Nutrition Diva's podcast, Junk Foods in Disguise, click here.

    Magical Crackers Erase Calories

    My favorite illustration of the health halo effect is an experiment John Tierney did last year in Brooklyn. He stopped a bunch of people on the street, showed them a photograph of a meal, and asked them to estimate how many calories the meal contained.

    The photo showed typical meal from a chain restaurant--one of those crunchy Asian chicken salads and a soda. On average, people estimated that the meal contained about 1,000 calories, which was a little high. It actually contained a little over 900 calories.

    Then he stopped a bunch more people and showed them a photo of the same salad and soda, plus two crackers that were labeled "trans-fat free." And get this: the average calorie estimate for the meal with the crackers was about 800 calories...two hundred calories less than the average estimate for same meal without the crackers. This despite the fact that the crackers actually added a hundred calories to the meal!

    The health halo conferred by three little words (trans-fat free) not only cancelled out the calories in the crackers themselves, it erased a hundred calories from the salad sitting next to them--at least in people's minds.

    Don't Be Blinded By the Health Halo

    Don't think that food manufacturers haven't figured this out! Pick up a box of Trix or Lucky Charms and it's hard to miss the fact that these cereals are now made with whole grains--nothing but the best for our kids! They're hoping you won't notice that each serving also contains 3 heaping teaspoons of white death... oops, I mean sugar.

    You have to be particularly on guard against the health halo effect when you shop at natural or whole foods stores. Everything in the store seems so virtuous. The chips are gluten-free, the sugar is organic, and the bacon is free-range. There are flax seeds on the waffles, green tea in the ice cream, and the sodas are sweetened with pure cane sugar--no high fructose corn syrup here!

    The glare from all those health halos can be blinding. It tends to lull people into thinking that they don't need to pay attention to what they're buying. They figure if it's being sold in a store like this, it must be good for you.

    But glue a flaxseed to a corn chip and you have, well, a corn chip plus a flaxseed. The lack of flaxseeds is not the thing that makes corn chips not-so-good-for-you--it's the salt and the fat and the fact that, given the chance, corn chips will happily take up the space in your life that would otherwise be occupied by actual vegetables.

    How to Shop at Healthy Food Stores

    Don't get me wrong; I shop in these stores, too. I like to shop where more of the food is organic, humanely raised, and free of genetically modified organisms. I like that I can find gluten-free pasta when my friend Julia comes for dinner and that the bacon contains no nitrates. I'm just saying that you still have to pay attention and make smart choices--even when you shop in "virtuous" food stores.

    First, remember that chips, crackers, cookies, ice cream, and other snacks and treats are still extras--even when they contain goji berries or air-dried sea salt. They may be free of preservatives or other scary things but they're still not contributing much to the nutritional quality of your diet and they can easily displace other, healthier foods.

    These foods shouldn't be placed into your shopping cart--or your mouth--until you've covered the basics like fruits, vegetables, and protein foods. As a general rule, extras shouldn't make up more than about 10-15% of your total calories. In practical terms, that means maybe one extra for every five servings of vegetables--not the other way around.

    You Still Need to Read Labels

    Secondly, don't let yourself be so dazzled by the presence of oat bran or the absence of MSG that you overlook the basics. Check the nutrition facts label to see how much sodium is in that spinach-powdered popcorn, or how much fat is in that preservative-free cheese cake, or how much sugar is in the whole-grain granola.

    The nutrition facts label not only tells you how many grams of this or that a food contains but also tells you what percentage of the typical recommended intake that represents. That is helpful because most people don't have all the recommendations memorized. You might not be sure whether 1,600 mg of sodium is a lot or a little, but when you see that one serving of the vegan kung-pao tofu contains 66% of the entire day's sodium allowance, you know it's a pretty hefty dose.

    No matter how virtuous the food seems to be, the numbers still need to add up. I hope that answers your question, Joy, or at least gives you some ideas on how to weigh the pros and cons of those honey-roasted sunflower seeds and flaxseed corn chips--and some help judging how they fit into a healthy diet.

    Have a great day and eat something good for me!

    About Monica Reinagel, The Nutrition Diva

    Monica Reinagel is a board-certified Licensed Nutritionist and a professionally-trained chef. She is the host of the Nutrition Diva podcast which is part of the Quick and Dirty Tips network. She has authored three books on health and nutrition, developed recipes and diet plans for websites and other publications. Monica's professional affiliations include the American Dietetic Association, the International Association of Culinary Professionals and the American Guild of Musical Artists.

    Reprinted by arrangement with Quick and Dirty Tips, a division of Macmillan Holdings, LLC.

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