In response to the increased attention and concern for America's rising rates of obesity and diabetes, the food industry has responded by creating what they often refer to as "better-for-you" foods. These include, among other things: bags of dried fruit slices, organic bars and cookies, yogurts, smoothies, vegetable crisps, and, of course, baked, not fried, potato chips. In turn, these items have begun to replace the more traditional junk food found in our children's school vending machines.
But where traditional junk food may have had marginally more calories and a bit more salt, what it never had was a "health halo." No one ever would have confused chips and chocolate bars with healthful choices. Not so with these products, which are regularly touted as truly healthy alternatives to their higher-octane, junk-food counterparts.
And the marketing works—there is widespread buy-in that these products are in fact "better for you," rather than simply "less awful for you." That, in turn, leads people to consider them to be healthy and almost certainly increases their consumption.
The term "health halo" isn't mine. It's one coined by two prolific consumer behavior researchers named Brian Wansink and Pierre Chandon. What their experiments have consistently demonstrated is that the belief that an item is a healthier choice leads to a disproportionate increase in that product's consumption. In other words, people eat so much more of the ever-so-slightly less awful, so-called "better for you" choice that they actually eat more in the way of calories, or salt, or sugar than they would have had they chosen that food's blatantly junky brother. Had they done so, there would be no kidding themselves into thinking they were making a thoughtful choice.
Let's take a look at some of the so-called "healthy" vending machine choices being sold by Vend Natural:
• Sensible Food Organic Crunch Dried Snacks—Apple Harvest. The stuff in the bag is 76 percent sugar, and while it has the calories of an actual medium-sized apple, it's only packing one quarter the fiber and, due to the dehydration, one-ninth an apple's weight and bulk. Four teaspoons of nearly straight sugar sure isn't going to be as filling as an actual medium-sized apple.
• PopChips Barbeque Potato. At 120 calories per 28 grams, this non-fried chip alternative is just 38 calories shy of those found in 28 grams of Lay's Classic Potato Chips. Meanwhile, PopChips has 250 miligrams of sodium, which is 33 percent more than you'd find in those Lay's.
• Barbara's Bakery Chocolate Chip Snackimals. Yes, the word "organic" appears three times in the first three ingredients. But when compared with classic chocolate animal crackers, these have identical amounts of sugar and only 7.5 percent fewer calories.
• Stonyfield Farm Organic Yogurt Smoothie—Strawberry. Its 230 calories are only 50 shy of a Snickers bar (2.1 oz.), yet those same 230 calories pack an astonishing 9.5 teaspoons of sugar—2 teaspoons of sugar more than the Snickers!
• Naked Protein Zone Juice Smoothie. Drop per drop, this has more than two and a half times the calories of Coca-Cola, with nearly an extra half teaspoon of sugar for good measure.
And herein lies the rub. As a species, we're always on the hunt for convenience and shortcuts. When it comes to health though, there are no shortcuts. Yet, if we allow ourselves to be duped by marketers and the food industry into believing that their bags and boxes contain handfuls of health, we're liable to eat more handfuls, which will further degrade our health.
My advice is simple and straightforward. More produce and less products. Pack fruit, not spare change. And for heaven's sake, get the damned vending machines out of the schools, and stop teaching children that extruded potato starch with flavoring and hyper-caloric, uber-sugary smoothies and yogurts are healthy, good-for-them, eat-more-of-them choices.
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Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him on Twitter @YoniFreedhoff. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work will be published by Random House's Crown/Harmony in 2014.