Are You Wearing a “Health Halo”? Organic, Gluten-Free, and Beyond.

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Organic. Non-GMO. Healthy. All-natural. Trans-fat-free. Gluten-free. Low-carb. These are terms that we’re seeing more and more in grocery stores, at farmer’s markets, in restaurants, and even in fast-food establishments. But as the saying goes “buyer beware.”

What can often happen when it comes to food and food marketing is something called the “health halo effect.” Basically, the health halo effect occurs when you (meaning, the consumer) overestimate the healthfulness of a food based on a single attribute or label, such as “organic.” As a result, you may end up eating too much of that food, based on the thinking that “if some is good, then more is better.” And research backs this up: Studies have shown that people will eat twice as much of a food they’ve determined to be “healthy” based on the way it’s marketed or on what the label states.

If you think back to years ago to when the fat-free/low-fat craze was going on, you might have fallen prey to the belief that because that Entenmann’s pound cake was fat-free, you could eat as much as you wanted. As a dietitian, I’ve seen this happen. Or, to use another example, some people with diabetes believe that a sugar-free food will have no calories or carbohydrate. While that may be true for diet soda, it’s not true for sugar-free candy or no-sugar-added ice cream. So this week, I’d like to highlight a few “trendy” terms and products that have been interjected into our daily lives and draw attention to the real story behind some of the hype.


Gluten-free. Chances are, you or someone you know is on a gluten-free diet. Maybe they have celiac disease and legitimately need to avoid gluten. Maybe they read somewhere or were told by someone that eating gluten can make you fat; or they’ve diagnosed themselves with “gluten sensitivity,” a rather vague term that doesn’t have much medical science behind it. An abundance of gluten-free products has cropped up over the last few years.

This is a good thing, in many ways, because for those who truly need to be on a gluten-free diet, finding acceptable products has always been challenging. A gluten-free diet, when constructed and followed properly, can be healthy. But not if it consists of gluten-free brownies, gluten-free cake mixes, gluten-free cookies, gluten-free Goldfish crackers, and gluten-free chocolate-covered pretzels, to name a few. These foods are no healthier for you than the “regular” versions. They’re still loaded with calories, saturated fat, and sugar. Is it OK to eat a gluten-free cookie? Absolutely. But don’t be fooled into thinking it’s any better for you than any other cookie.

Coconut oil. Coconut oil is another hot topic lately. I’ve had a few readers write indignant comments questioning why I don’t mention or promote this “healthful” fat. The reality is that coconut oil is a highly saturated fat. And despite some of the hype out there about how saturated fat really isn’t that bad, there are plenty of studies (and well done studies, at that) that link a high saturated fat intake to heart disease.

There is some evidence, although not a lot, that coconut oil may not be as “harmful” as some of the other saturated fats out there, such as lard or shortening. Half of coconut oil’s saturated fat comes from a fatty acid called lauric acid. This is a type of medium-chain triglyceride that has some health benefits, such as raising HDL (“good”) cholesterol.

In fact, most of the credible research done with coconut oil has been on its effect on cholesterol levels. There’s absolutely no good research (meaning, randomized clinical trials — which are the gold standard for research, by the way) on this fat’s effect on long-term health. And there’s no credible evidence that eating coconut oil leads to weight loss or cures Alzheimer, cancer, HIV, or thyroid disease. Go beyond the hype and the anecdotal Internet claims and you’ll find very little evidence. Is it OK to use coconut oil? Sure. A little bit is fine. Just make sure to use unrefined virgin coconut oil. And don’t slather it on your foods or go overboard cooking with it. Let’s wait and see what future research tells us about it.

Organic. The term “organic” means that meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy foods come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones; in terms of plant foods, “organic” means that the food has been grown without most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. There are specific standards set forth by the USDA to ensure that a food can legally be called “organic.”

There’s no doubt that organic foods are better for the environment and for the livestock. And none of us want pesticides or hormones in our food. But are organic foods really more nutritious for us? When it comes to produce, there’s really no consistent evidence that organic fruits and vegetables are significantly better for us. Any differences in vitamins and minerals are slight. Organic milk and eggs are slightly higher in omega-3 fatty acids, but the amount is still quite low. You’re better off eating salmon for your omega-3’s. Because there are no organic standards for fish and shellfish, there’s not enough evidence to compare “organic” vs. “conventional” seafood in terms of health effects.

Again, it’s clear that organic foods are lower in pesticides, hormones, and other possibly harmful chemicals, which is often reason enough to purchase them. But nutrition-wise, there’s no real basis behind the hype. Surprisingly, organic foods are more likely to be contaminated with pathogens such as E. coli and Campylobacter, according to a 2012 review by researchers at Stanford University, published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

More health-halo info next week!

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