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Healthy Junk Food or Junky Health Food? How to Avoid The “Health Halo” Phenomenon

Posted Nov 11 2012 11:40pm

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I love Trader Joe’s. (For those of you unfamiliar with it, it’s a health food store but smaller, quirkier and way more affordable than Whole Foods.) Always have. The Hawaiian shirts, the quirky foods, the peppy staff and even that stupid bell – just walking in the store makes me smile. And when we lived in Seattle, having one two blocks from our apartment make it part of our weekly rounds. Which is where the problem started, I think. I fell in love with it because as a then-vegan I could always find something tasty to eat (not an easy feat sometimes). But I stayed in love with it because of how it made me feel. Not gonna lie, I liked seeing myself as the kind of person who uses cloth grocery totes, can tell the difference between endive and escarole and cares about BPA in cans. (Even if I always forget the totes in the car, never buy fancy lettuce because it’s too pricey and end up skipping canned goods altogether.) So when a spanking-new TJ’s opened up in the next city over, my husband and I were so excited that we actually made it our Friday night family activity.

All was fun, games and papayas until I had an uncomfortable realization. It was the organic lollipops.

The second we walked in the store, we were greeted by a wonderful employee who immediately offered my kids a sucker. Considering they’re offered sugar-balls-on-a-stick at the bank, the grocery store, the doctor’s office and even the gym sometimes, it wasn’t unusual. And I don’t mind the kids getting a treat sometimes, especially when it keeps them quiet enough for me to sort through eleventy different kinds of nuts. (Roasted? Salted? Half-Salt? Sprouted? Raw? Cajun? Sesame-seed coated? Mixed? SO MANY OPTIONS.) So we happily handed the suckers around and as I pulled the wrapper off I realized that it was… just a sucker. I mean, I know organic sugar is still sugar but seeing it clenched in Jelly Bean’s chubby fist clinched it.

It was then I realized that shopping at TJ’s always had an added bonus: thanks to their genius marketing, everything in the store comes with a health halo. Even things that probably shouldn’t.

As I wandered through the store looking for all the “weird” foods on my list – red quinoa may not taste different but it’s sure purty! – I couldn’t help but notice how many convenience and snack foods lined the shelves. And how many were making it into my cart. There were more whole-grain, organic and gluten-free options but it was, dare I say it?, kinda like a regular grocery store. Don’t get me wrong – TJ’s has a lot of legitimately healthy items that I love but I was quickly realizing that there is no magic healthy powder in the goods.

Alphabet cookies may help teach my kids their letters but they’re still cookies. Gorilla Munch (seriously was there ever a worse name for a cereal?!) may be organic and free of artificial colors but it still has 9 grams of sugar, the same as Cinnamon Toast Crunch. The TJ’s granola bars actually had more sugar and calories than the kind I usually buy my kids. And all the chocolate-dipped raspberry sticks, peanut-butter filled pretzels, ice cream, frozen dinners, pizzas and toffee-coated-popcorn-heaven? Pretty much the same as their “non-healthy” counterparts. Except they’re more expensive.

I’m not the only person to fall prey to the health halo phenomenon. A 2011 Cornell study found that

“The halo effect may also apply to foods, and ultimately influence what and how much we eat. For instance, research has shown that people tend to consume more calories at fast-food restaurants claiming to serve “healthier” foods, compared to the amount they eat at a typical burger-and-fry joint. The reasoning is that when people perceive a food to be more nutritious, they tend to let their guard down when it comes to being careful about counting calories — ultimately leading them to overeat or feel entitled to indulge. This health halo effect also seems to apply to certain foods considered by many to be especially healthy, such as organic products. Specifically, some people mistakenly assume that these foods are more nutritious just because they carry an “organic” label -an area of longstanding active debate among food and nutrition scientists.”

All of this bah-humbugging made me grouchy. So when I reunited with my family at the sampling station and the kids were double-fisting “sparkling cider” I snapped. It’s pop! Maybe with some juice mixed in. I ripped the little paper cups out of their fingers and told daddy to pound them. The tears did flow. I tried not to shoot eye-daggers at the sample lady. But then I found the cinnamon brooms and my faith in Hawaiian shirts was partially restored. Have you ever had a cinnamon broom in your house? Hello, holiday spirit! By the time we made it back to the parking lot we were significantly poorer and as I happily introduced kids to delicious unsulphered dried calmyra figs I thought I’d made my point. Family fun and a healthy lesson! I’m such a smart mom!

When I unpacked the groceries at home I discovered not one, but two, bottles of Trader Joe’s Sparkling Cider. I can’t win.

Now I’m not saying any of these foods are “bad” or that you shouldn’t eat them if you really want to eat them. But in the past I’d just sort of assumed that everything in the store was “healthy” or at least “healthier.” I’d made it into what I wanted it to be (my yuppie Barbie dream house?) instead of recognizing it for what it was.

Anyone else have a thing for healthy junk food? Or is it junky health food? Anyone else ever gotten suckered by the “health halo” effect? What’s your trigger word – “organic” “fiber” “25% less sugar”? (And for more info on food labeling lies, check out my top 10 offenders in my article! )


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