Is Your Health Food Really Healthy?

By Rachel Johnson, Ph.D, M.P.H., R.D., May/June 2008

6 healthy-sounding foods that really aren’t.

My friend’s husband, Henry, recently bought a huge box of Yogos, confident that these “yogurty-covered, fruit-flavored bits” were a healthy choice for his kids.

“Not exactly,” his wife, a nutritionist, said when he presented her with the box. Sure, Yogos are fortified with 100 percent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C and some calcium. But the ingredient list begins with sugar and partially hydrogenated oils, and a small pouch (just shy of an ounce) of the pea-sized candies supplies 90 calories, two-thirds of which come from sugars. In fact, Yogos contain very little yogurt or fruit. How did this smart man get fooled into thinking this was health food?

No doubt Henry was deceived by what Brian Wansink, Ph.D., executive director of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and an EatingWell Advisory Board member, calls the “health halo” effect. Words like “yogurt” and “fruit” positively glow with such halos, since we consider these foods healthy in their natural state.

In his “McSubway” studies, reported last October in the Journal of Consumer Research, Wansink showed how we let our general impressions of foods mislead us. He asked people who had finished eating at McDonald’s or Subway to estimate the calories in their meals, then compared their guesses to the actual counts. Participants estimated that a Subway meal contained 21 percent fewer calories than a McDonald’s meal with the same calories. Wansink concluded that Subway’s “healthier than fast food” image was biasing customers’ calorie estimations. Today, his advice is, “Take your best estimate of how many calories you think the food contains, and double it!”

Don’t be fooled by health halos. Here are some of the worst offenders.

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