Halo on Fire: What is the Health Halo?

I discuss a marketing tactic trying to get you to buy products based on health merits.

I think it’s time for me to get up off my ass and do some writing for my blog.  Instead of getting on my ass and writing for my assignments?  That doesn’t sound quite right, but whatever.

First, let me take you on a mystical, magical tour of going to a grocery store in America.  The first step is getting in a car.  Along the way, you pass by a restaurant promoting that their meats are “Antibiotic Free.”  Another restaurant proudly proclaims that they do not use GMOs in their meals.

While in the grocery store, there are many products available for any type of food you can imagine.  Foods labels promote the item inside as being “gluten-free,” or “reduced fat,” or any other label variety you can imagine (and label claims you can’t).  All these products are exhibiting what is called the “health halo.”  The health halo is more of a lose term, as a quick search online does not directly tell you what it means.  From what I have gathered, it means a food item is marketing itself as being a healthy choice, or at least a healthier choice, when compared to other products.

So what?  Why is this a big deal?  Well, for starters, this can skew consumer choice, which is what food companies want.  Organic food items sound healthier than conventional produce.  Organic products might have less antibiotic resistant bacteria on meats, or more phosphorous and omega-3 fatty acids, when compared to conventional products.  These health benefits can be eliminated though, if the product is something unhealthy, like in a candy.  Organic cane sugar is still added sugar.

As with the restaurants promoting antibiotic-free meat, or non-GMO ingredients in their meals, these phrases do not indicate things about how healthy the food is.  You can have antibiotic free, non-GMO meats and cheeses in a product, use only the finest of gluten-free flours to make breads, and any other health buzzword out there, and still wind up with an unhealthy product.  In the case of restaurants, assuming the meal IS in fact healthy, you can undo the health effects.

This begs the question:  Why should I care?  If you just want to eat whatever food, no amount of blog posts are going to change your mind.  However, I am focusing on those who will learn and become more aware.

So how can you avoid the “health halo?”  I recommend buying raw ingredients, like fruits and vegetables.  Reading the Nutrition Facts panel is also helpful.  Look for things like Calories, and added sugar.

Land of Confusion: Are Organic Foods Really Better for You?

This is a topic people definitely have an opinion on.  People on both sides have reasons to buy organic produce or to avoid it entirely.  However, do people really know what it means to be organic?  In a food sense, that is.  Smart ass chemists would say that it has carbon atoms present.  But who cares about those nerds, ammiright? (Note:  I would like to apologize to any chemists that may or may not have been offended by this statement.  Keep doing what you do best:  chemistry).

What the USDA considers “organic” is a food made without growth hormones added, or antibiotics.  They also have to have approved fertilizers, and cannot be irradiated to remove microbes.  The product must also not be genetically modified.  So what does this mean?  Well, organic farms do not have to be local, or non-corporate.  They can also use pesticides and fertilizers, so they are not always “pesticide free.”  They also typically cost more, on average 25-60% more expensive than conventional products.

So is there really any benefit?  Those who buy organic typically believe they have less pesticides present, and are more nutritious.  While it is true that tested conventional produce had higher rates of pesticides present than organics, there still is not a whole lot of conclusive data on if the pesticides used in conventional products cause health problems.  Research shows there is a fuck-ton of problems in the farmers who handle it, but they handle much, much higher amounts that are present in, and on, any food item you eat.  However, it has also been found that blanching, peeling, or cooking fruits and vegetables also destroys a lot of the pesticides.  Which means that you can reduce up to 90% of pesticides present, for those still worried.

As for nutrients, that is difficult to compare, as there are many different factors that can reduce nutrition content, such as soil conditions, seasonal changes, ripeness of food when harvested etc.  However, conventional produce typically has higher protein values than organic, believed to be because of the nitrogen in the soil.  Organic milk also has less omega-6 and more omega-3 fatty acids, possibly due to the feeding and housing conditions.  This is believed to be healthier.  However, there are mixed results if organic has higher or lower vitamin and mineral content when compared to conventional.

So, should you buy organic?  I would say if you want to, and if you can afford it.  It does not seem like there is a whole lot of benefit, so if you plan on processing the produce before eating, that is also going to reduce pesticide residue if that concerns you.

So, do you buy organic?  If so, why, and where from?