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Food Labeling 101: Don’t be Fooled by the “Health Halo”

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Did you know that “organic,” “all-natural,” and “low-fat” labels are becoming increasingly common in processed food packaging? The demand for these allegedly healthier foods is at an all time high and they often come at a premium price. But beware, this “healthy” labeling does not always translate to nutritious food.

 

The "Health Halo" effect, also known as “Greenwashing,” is a term coined by sociologists who discovered, amid a series of studies and interviews, that consumers associated organic, all-natural, and low-fat labeling with having better flavor and fewer calories, thus, prompting them to consume more of these packaged foods. While we are not denying the benefits of an organic, natural, or lower-in-fat diet, we would like to shed light on the adverse effects that this type of deceptive marketing can have on your health.

 

Organic foods are becoming more abundant in our stores because consumers are becoming better educated about the negative effects of pesticides and chemicals used in many conventional foods. Of course, that’s a good thing. An educated consumer demands a transparent food industry and that benefits all of us. However, there are two sides to this story.

 

The Cornell University Food & Brand Lab discovered that consumers perceive organic labeled products as having fewer calories and better taste than non-organic products. This is a problem because most consumers will eat more packaged/processed food when they believe it has fewer calories. However, the USDA Organic label found on food packaging only means that food does not contain the following:

 

  • Antibiotics or growth hormones
  • Pesticides and  fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients
  • Sewage sludge
  • Bioengineered organisms  (GMOs)
  • Ionizing radiation (for sterilizing food)

 

The organic label does not mean that the food is lower in calories, sodium, or fat.  Organic ice cream is still ice cream, so don’t forget to exercise portion control - as best as you can. We suggest tight scrutiny of all packaged processed foods.

 

Other food labels that have been greenwashing sugar-saturated products are the ubiquitous “All-Natural” and “Low-Fat” labels. The “All-Natural” label is found in an increasing number of foods in the average grocery store aisle - including highly processed food items that hardly resemble anything that comes from the earth itself. This is in part because the FDA is vague in defining and enforcing what it allows to be labeled as “All-Natural.” The FDA.gov website states that it does not object to the use of the term if “ the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances”.

 

 Due to this vague definition, an increasing number of food companies are now facing lawsuits claiming misleading marketing practices, leading to the disappearance of “All-Natural” labels from shelves everywhere. “The Food Labeling Modernization Act” introduced last September would require that the FDA create a more detailed definition on what it considers to be “All-Natural.” In the meantime, we recommend steering away from highly processed packaged items. A good rule of thumb: if you can’t pronounce the ingredients, they’re probably not as natural as the packaging claims!

 

Low-fat labels may also lead you to believe you are eating an overall healthier product. Unfortunately, this is a false sense of security since most highly processed foods have an increased amount of sugar to compensate for the flavor lost when fat is decreased.  Furthermore, research done by Cornell University found that people eat up to 50% more calories when they eat low-fat snack foods.

 

The takeaway is simply to be vigilant about the food you bring into your home. Don’t be misled by the labeling on the package, as natural-looking and inviting as it may be. Always read nutritional labels and ingredients thoroughly to avoid the many offenders currently available.

 

For detailed nutrition guidelines for young children, visit http://wtcafe.com/index.php/food/nutrition_guidelines

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