Why Health Food is Trying to Kill You

Posted on: September 30th 2018

Okay, well, maybe health food not trying to kill you.  But it’s definitely trying to mislead you.  

Our Derby in the Kitchen expert, Lilith NoFair, gets real with the grocery store lingo, so you can know what you’re buying, and what you’re eating… 

Enter NoFair…

All of us want to eat “healthier”, but the marketing of “health food” often makes it harder to do so.  It’s so important to be an educated eater and an educated consumer, because the folks trying to sell you whatever the next new “best superfood ever” are sure not going to tell the whole truth.

“Health-claim based marketing” is not new, it’s been around as long as food has been sold.  


Historically, we tend to cycle through various health trends:

  • High Carb, Low Fat
  • Low Carb, High Protein
  • Plant-Based, Meat-Free
  • Paleo
  • and so on, and so on…

There are a few issues with this approach to our food.  

First, we overestimate how good “healthy” food is for us.

Food advertising and labelling tends to highlight the “health-benefits” of a given product, and as such, we tend to miscalculate  the product’s caloric content. Marketing researcher Pierre Chandon has studied consumer behaviour, finding that “once a food is portrayed as healthy, consumers will tend to mentally categorise the entire food as healthy, leading them to underestimate its calorie content, and to overconsume it”.  This is referred to as the “health halo” effect.  You can take a look at one of his many studies here.

Next, as soon as a particular food or diet trend is deemed “healthy”, someone will find a reason why it’s not. 

Roxanne Sukol, preventive medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic and medical director of its Wellness Enterprise said, “ ‘Healthy’ is a bankrupt word, our food isn’t healthy. We are healthy. Our food is nutritious. Words are the key to giving people the tools they need to figure out what to eat.”

Just looking through the labels on the products you encounter every day will help you to become a more savvy buyer. 

In Canada, the “Nutrition Facts” labels will give you the basics:

  • Ingredients
  • Indicated Serving
  • % Daily Value of various items
  • Information on the content of: calories, fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fibre, sugars, protein, calcium, potassium, iron

Make sure to pay special attention to the %DV, since you want to make sure you’re not overdoing it on things like sodium (try not to exceed 2000-2300mg/day).

Producers have to give us those basic facts on their labels, but marketers will aim to make their product appeal regardless of what it may contain.  

What are these potentially troublesome words we need to be on the lookout for?  

Organic: A legally defined label. Generally cannot contain:

  • GMOs
  • Added hormones and prophylactic antibiotics
  • Radiation or irradiated substances
  • Cloned animals or their descendants
  • Intentionally-manufactured nano-technology products
  • Synthetic pesticides
  • Synthetic processing substances

The organic label is more about environmentally-sustainable production practices and humane treatment of animals. You better believe there are organic gummy bears, chocolate bars and chips.  In Canada, any food claiming to be organic must be certified by an appropriate certifying body. That said, there are many local farmers who produce organic products, but do not have official organic certification, so don’t be afraid to ask your local producers how they farm. 

Natural: A legally defined label. Generally must meet the following criteria:

  • Do not contain added vitamins, minerals or artificial flavours
  • Do not have any constituent removed or significantly changed, except for removing water
  • Have not been processed in a way, like hydrogenation, which significantly alters their physical, chemical or biological state (drying, freezing and canning are ok, as are a number of other less-invasive processes)

By this standard, all fresh meat is “natural”.  Also, foods with a natural label can still contain a great deal of sugar or fat. Conversely, just because a food has additives and is no longer 100% natural, it doesn’t automatically become bad for you.

Fresh:  Not a legally defined label.  It might suggest that a food has not been preserved or processed, or it might indicate the age or taste of a product.  Even frozen foods can be marketed as “fresh-tasting”. Also, “fresh” produce can be preserved by:

  • Approved waxes and coatings
  • Approved post-harvest pesticides
  • Mild chlorine or acid wash
  • Small amounts of ionizing radiation

Free-Range, Free-Roaming, Free-Run: Not a legally defined label.  Set by industry groups.  Free-range birds generally have:

  • Access to outdoor space

That’s all.  There are no stipulations on how much time those birds spend outdoors, or what the outdoor environment is like.  Free range birds in Canada can have a density of up to 14 chickens per square metre. Since many chickens aren’t raised in cages, but rather in large indoor enclosures “cage-free” doesn’t guarantee a heck of a lot either. A “Certified Humane” label is good to look for, or even better – find a local farm and buy your eggs or chickens direct.

Hormone-Free: No hormones were administered in any way to the animal that makes up the food product. However, you are not allowed to use any hormones at all on some animals – the CFIA says it’s misleading to label “raised without hormones” on animals where it’s not allowed anyway, like chicken and pork.

Free: Foods labelled “free” of something can contain a very small amount of that thing, just not enough to be nutritionally significant.  So, a sugar or fat-free product may not actually have zero sugar or fat.

Low: “Low” is less than “free”, but more than reduced.  Health Canada mandates that something labelled as “low” in a particular nutrient or ingredient contains a very small amount, but that this amount varies depending on the ingredient.

Reduced: This word often gets attached to fat and salt. To be  “reduced,” a food must contain at least 25% less of a nutrient than a comparable product.  However, that doesn’t automatically make the product healthy.  Reduced salt chips are still chips.  Margarine has reduced saturated fat, but contains more hydrogenated fat than butter (which is generally worse).

Light: This word sounds healthy, and that’s because it can only be attached to a product that is either reduced in fat or in calories from its regular counterpart.  

Local: Each retailer can determine what they deem “local”.  Some might have a radius for local produce. Some might determine by the time it takes to get from the producer to the shelf.  When in doubt, ask.

Seasonal: Produce can be labelled “seasonal” as long as it is in season where it came from. The best way to assess seasonality is by tracking prices over time. You’ll get a much better sense of what is in season when – if it’s in season and local, it’ll usually be a bit cheaper.

Gluten-free and Vegan: Gluten-free is a legally defined term on package labels, vegan is not. If you have these dietary restrictions, by all means, look for these products.  However, a vegan or a gluten-free cookie is still a cookie.  Keep a critical eye for added sugars and fats.

Artisan: Means manufactured in small batches (homemade means not commercially prepared).  “Artisan” sounds great, but actually bestows no health benefit, and does not guarantee that the product is being crafted with care.

Multigrain: This term means that more than one grain was used in making the product.  Generally, you’re better off with “100% whole grain” products, but even they can contain additives and sugars.

Source Of: A “source of” a particular nutrient, foods must contain a “significant amount” of that nutrient.  This varies with the specific ingredient or nutrient. 

What does all this mean to you as a consumer?

Be critical.  Be wary of what you’re being sold.  

Sure, Greek yogurt often has more protein than regular yogurt, but often it also has added sugar.  Desserts, processed foods, and fast food are often labelled with various health claims but that doesn’t make them “healthy”.  Even kale wouldn’t be healthy if it was the only thing you ever ate.

Are there any misleading labels or health-halos that you come across when you shop or go out to eat?  

Tell us about them!



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