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I had to go into Wholefoods the other day to buy some coconut yoghurt for a recipe I’m testing – nestled next to it on the shelf were some little pots that looked a) intriguing b) yummy.
They were called things like Raw Blueberry Cheesecake and Raw Banoffee Pie… I love Banoffee pie however I don’t eat Banoffee pie as I’m extremely good at gaining weight, so when I saw this I thought,’oooh yum’.
In a normal supermarket, however, I would have also have thought ‘and how many calories/sugar/crap is in that then?’ – and checked the label. But instead, I saw the word Raw, and the health halo kicked in…
What is the Health Halo?
The health halo is what food researchers call the idea that because a food has a claim on the front that makes it sound healthier or better for the environment, it mysteriously loses calories in our minds.
For example, when a group of over 100 people were questioned by a team of health researchers in New York, as to how many calories were in an organic product compared to a regular one, they thought an organic yogurt had 20 per cent fewer calories, organic crisps were thought to have 23 per cent fewer calories, while organic cookies were believed to contain 24 per cent fewer calories.
We also tend to think we can consume more of foods labelled low-fat, believe Fairtrade products have fewer calories than other brands and according to research from the University of Michigan, are more likely to say we’d skip the gym after eating a dessert marked organic than if we had eaten a non-organic one.
It’s so common that a number of obesity researchers have suggested that the falling for the health halo is one reason why we’ve never eaten better, but have also never weighed more!
I’m pretty aware of all of the above and so still read the labels very carefully – especially on anything marked low-fat. However, when I saw the word raw I was thinking, how bad can it be? Particularly as it was also gluten and dairy-free, so reading the label went out the window.
My first inkling to the answer to ‘how bad’ came when I took my first mouthful….’wow this is sweet,’ I said to The Boyfriend.
I should really have stopped there and then and looked at the label, but we were watching The Following, Kevin Bacon was doing something Bacony and we had the lights down and I couldn’t be bothered to move.
In the words of Pretty Woman, big mistake – huge (which is likely to be how I’d end up if I ate too many of these things).
When I was clearing up the kitchen later I decided to see why it had been so sweet – the answer was pretty clear it contains coconut sugar (as its main ingredient), plus coconut nectar and yacon syrup – all of which are sweeteners (it also has dates but we’ll let them off because they are fruit).
And yes, while all of these sugars have a relatively low glycemic index (which means they won’t send your blood sugar soaring then crashing) they still have calories and they do still raise insulin which is a green light in my body to ‘gain weight, go on, stack it on’.
And yes they also do have more minerals and other nutrients than table sugar, but you’d have to eat a lot of them to get any benefits…
And while Yacon syrup has been touted as a weight loss aid, when I tried it I gained a kilo in less than a week – and came off it very fast.
So, here I was eating something rammed with a mixture of sweet stuff that meant it contained 19.2g of total sugar.
Then I read the calorie count. This was a tiny pot, half the height of a small yoghurt pot yet in that tiny pot was 418 calories. For that, I could have eaten…
I wouldn’t eat that many of any of those things in one go, and if I’d picked up a pot of anything else sweet containing that many calories I’d have put it straight back on the shelf, but I’d been absolutely, completely and totally suckered in by the health halo from the raw food label.
Now I’m aware that the ingredients of cashews, coconut, dates, banana were considerably better for me than those in chocolate koalas or cookies, and that calories from real foods like cashews and bananas do, potentially, act differently in the body than those in processed crap, but still, it was an obscene amount of calories and sugars in such a tiny pot.
How to Stop Yourself Getting Taken In
The simple way is to always, always, always read the labels on processed foods – even if you are in a health food store.
In fact, you might need to even more alert in a health food store as when I spoke to a nutritionist about this for an article I was working on she told me that foods claiming health benefits (you know the things many health food stores are full of) are often the worse health halo offenders.
For example, she said that some foods marked with low GI labels (which in means that food will convert more slowly to sugar in the body) can claim that because they have quite a lot of fat in them as fat slows down how fast you process sugars! As such they might have a lot more calories than you think.
Foods that flag up what their products don’t contain can also trigger health halos – so, while a product might say it doesn’t contain any gluten, dairy or artificial colourings, it might be using lots of sugar or fat to make up for the fact that some of those things add taste!
So again, read the label and ask yourself ‘ that claim is great, but what might also be in this food that I don’t want to eat?’ rather than being blindsided by the claim on the front.
And if you do ever bite into a dessert and get the feeling that you might as well be sucking on a sugar cube, it’s a good idea to go look rather than scarfing it down in one go! Learned that one the hard way!
What to Read Next
If you liked this piece, you might also like our post on what size portion you should be eating (it’s often a lot smaller than you might think).
If you’re also wondering whether some specific foods are healthy, have a look at our section on that very thing – we’ve covered some common items like instant coffee and the Tik Tik trend Nature’s Cereal, but also some common treats you might find in health food shops. Have a look at the list here.
Who is The Wellness Nerd?
My name is Helen Foster, and I’m a health journalist and wellness author. Publications I’ve written for include Women’s Health, Reader’s Digest, Body and Soul, Good Health at the Daily Mail, and more. I have also written 16 books on health and nutrition.