Beware the ‘health halo’

Reviewed by our expert panel
Beware the 'health halo'

Sometimes, the things we read about health and food are not particularly helpful.

Think of all the websites out there full of nutrition advice. Some of it is highly credible, some of it is from well-meaning people with no evidence at all, and some of it is from companies trying to sell you a product. Sometimes it is not easy to tell the difference – anyone can say anything online, after all.

Packaging claims can be another example of confusing health information. It’s in the interests of people who sell food products to highlight their food’s health properties. If you’re hesitating at the supermarket shelf trying to decide what to buy, it could make the difference to know that brand A is ‘high in calcium’ according to its packaging, compared to brand B.

Unfortunately, there is not much regulation around what food companies can claim. This makes many ‘health’ claims on packaging – just like websites – unreliable at best and quite meaningless at worst.

The most misleading are statements like ‘more [insert nutrient here] than (insert well-known source of nutrient here)’. For example: “Sesame seeds have more calcium than milk”. It is technically true – a cup of sesame seeds does have more calcium than a cup of milk. But think about context. A cup of milk is easy to consume – think of your daily flat white. But can you imagine munching your way through a cup of sesame seeds? We’re more likely to eat them by the half-teaspoon than we are by the cup.

It’s the same with a seaweed product I saw recently, bearing the claim “high in protein”. That may be true, but considering it’s a garnish and you’re using a few flakes at a time, it’s hardly going to take the place of that piece of steak. Ditto the oft-promoted Himalayan salt. Yes, it does contain minerals that are beneficial to health. But as the Stroke Foundation points out, many of the minerals listed in gourmet salts are present in such tiny quantities that they would have almost no impact on a person’s recommended dietary intake (RDI). There are other far better, cheaper ways to get your minerals.

It also pays to watch out for claims that seek to confer a ‘health halo’ on products when they really don’t deserve it. A vegetable chip product recently found its way to me bearing all sorts of healthy-sounding words on its packaging. Apart from quite meaningless statements “Tasty and Nutritious” and “Healthier Choice”, the packet also told me the chips were “High in Dietary Fibre”, a “Generous supply of Iron and Calcium” and a “Good Source of Vitamin C”. The fibre claim is true – a 40g serve of the chips had 3.8g fibre; less than a serve of whole kumara, but not bad. The iron and calcium could be called ‘generous’ if you munched your way through 8½ bags of chips, which would incidentally also give you nearly three days’ worth of kilojoules and close to six days’ worth of saturated fat. A serving of these chips would give me just five per cent of my RDI for vitamin C. (I could get my whole day’s worth by eating a single kiwifruit). And this in a product with about the same fat and far more saturated fat than many regular potato chips. Everything about this product screamed ‘healthy’, judging by the packet. But looking closer there was very little healthy about it.

The lesson here is: whenever you see a health claim, whether it’s online or on a packet, take a closer look, and think about context. The simpler choice could well be the better one.

First published: May 2012

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