Have You Heard of the ‘Health Halo’?

Have You Heard of the “Health Halo”?
Lori Skurbe, RD


When we shop for nutritious food, we often look at the front of the package to see if the food looks healthy. Certain buzzwords seem to grab our attention. ‘Made with whole grain’, ‘protein’, ‘organic’, ‘all natural’, ‘plant based’, ‘low fat’ and ‘gluten free’ are just a few of the words we see on food labels that make us think what we are buying is healthy, but is it really? 

The Health Halo is a marketing tactic to make a food appear more healthful than it is.  Food manufacturers want you to buy their products and will use certain words or phrases on the front of the package to entice consumers. In addition, front of package images of healthy foods or colors can make a food look like it is healthy. This type of labeling tells you nothing about what is actually inside the package. The Healthy Halo gives the perception that a particular food is good for you, even when there is little or no proof to substantiate this claim.

Let’s take a closer look at some popular Health Halos:

  • Made With Whole Grain: Not all foods claiming to be made with whole grain have significant amounts of whole grains or dietary fiber.  The claim does not ensure the food is a good source of whole grain or what percentage of the food actually contains whole grains. 
  • Protein/High Protein: Protein rich foods are not always healthy as they often contain higher amounts of fat, saturated fats and added sugars.
  • Organic: Organic refers to a farming practice, but does not mean the food is more nutritious, tastes better or is healthier for you. There are organic cookies, ice cream and potato chips – organic ingredients are used, but a cookie is still a cookie. 
  • All Natural: This statement does not mean the food is healthy. Sugar, fat and salt are all natural, but we might not want too much of these in our diet. 
  • Plant-Based/Vegan/Vegetarian: Foods that are mostly or all plant derived do not automatically make that food a better choice. There are some plant based foods that have high total fat and saturated fat content, which may not fit into your diet or health goals. 
  • Low Fat: Shoppers often think low fat means low in calories, which is not always the case. Some foods that are low in fat may be higher in added sugars making the food not low in calories at all.
  • Gluten Free: This is only necessary for people with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity – the vast majority of people do not need to avoid gluten. Some gluten free foods are lower in fiber, vitamins and minerals and higher in salt, fat and added sugars. 

How do we not fall for the Health Halo?

Read the Nutrition Facts Label.  

The Nutrition Fact label is where you can see how much of certain nutrients you are actually getting in a particular food. You can also see if you are getting higher amounts of added sugars, total fat, saturated fats, sodium and cholesterol. 

Check out the serving size and compare it to how much you are actually eating – many of us may be consuming more of a food if we think it is healthy. 

Take a look at the list of ingredients. Here you can see what is actually in the food. Ingredients are listed from the most to the least. Pay close attention to the first few ingredients listed for types of added sugars, unhealthy fats and other ingredients.

Understanding what is in your food can help you make more informed choices.  We may learn that some foods we thought were healthy, were not. This does not mean these foods cannot be part of your diet.  Healthy eating is about balance – there are no foods that are categorically good or bad.  All foods can fit into our diet, we just want to make sure we understand the nutritional value of the foods we eat and how best to incorporate them into our eating plan.