Healthy Junk Food or Junky Health Food? How to Avoid The “Health Halo” Phenomenon

by Charlotte on November 11, 2012 · 28 comments

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I love Trader Joe’s. (For those of you unfamiliar with it, it’s a health food store but smaller, quirkier and way more affordable than Whole Foods.) Always have. The Hawaiian shirts, the quirky foods, the peppy staff and even that stupid bell – just walking in the store makes me smile. And when we lived in Seattle, having one two blocks from our apartment make it part of our weekly rounds. Which is where the problem started, I think. I fell in love with it because as a then-vegan I could always find something tasty to eat (not an easy feat sometimes). But I stayed in love with it because of how it made me feel. Not gonna lie, I liked seeing myself as the kind of person who uses cloth grocery totes, can tell the difference between endive and escarole and cares about BPA in cans. (Even if I always forget the totes in the car, never buy fancy lettuce because it’s too pricey and end up skipping canned goods altogether.) So when a spanking-new TJ’s opened up in the next city over, my husband and I were so excited that we actually made it our Friday night family activity.

All was fun, games and papayas until I had an uncomfortable realization. It was the organic lollipops.

The second we walked in the store, we were greeted by a wonderful employee who immediately offered my kids a sucker. Considering they’re offered sugar-balls-on-a-stick at the bank, the grocery store, the doctor’s office and even the gym sometimes, it wasn’t unusual. And I don’t mind the kids getting a treat sometimes, especially when it keeps them quiet enough for me to sort through eleventy different kinds of nuts. (Roasted? Salted? Half-Salt? Sprouted? Raw? Cajun? Sesame-seed coated? Mixed? SO MANY OPTIONS.) So we happily handed the suckers around and as I pulled the wrapper off I realized that it was… just a sucker. I mean, I know organic sugar is still sugar but seeing it clenched in Jelly Bean’s chubby fist clinched it.

It was then I realized that shopping at TJ’s always had an added bonus: thanks to their genius marketing, everything in the store comes with a health halo. Even things that probably shouldn’t.

As I wandered through the store looking for all the “weird” foods on my list – red quinoa may not taste different but it’s sure purty! – I couldn’t help but notice how many convenience and snack foods lined the shelves. And how many were making it into my cart. There were more whole-grain, organic and gluten-free options but it was, dare I say it?, kinda like a regular grocery store. Don’t get me wrong – TJ’s has a lot of legitimately healthy items that I love but I was quickly realizing that there is no magic healthy powder in the goods.

Alphabet cookies may help teach my kids their letters but they’re still cookies. Gorilla Munch (seriously was there ever a worse name for a cereal?!) may be organic and free of artificial colors but it still has 9 grams of sugar, the same as Cinnamon Toast Crunch. The TJ’s granola bars actually had more sugar and calories than the kind I usually buy my kids. And all the chocolate-dipped raspberry sticks, peanut-butter filled pretzels, ice cream, frozen dinners, pizzas and toffee-coated-popcorn-heaven? Pretty much the same as their “non-healthy” counterparts. Except they’re more expensive.

I’m not the only person to fall prey to the health halo phenomenon. A 2011 Cornell study found that

“The halo effect may also apply to foods, and ultimately influence what and how much we eat. For instance, research has shown that people tend to consume more calories at fast-food restaurants claiming to serve “healthier” foods, compared to the amount they eat at a typical burger-and-fry joint. The reasoning is that when people perceive a food to be more nutritious, they tend to let their guard down when it comes to being careful about counting calories — ultimately leading them to overeat or feel entitled to indulge. This health halo effect also seems to apply to certain foods considered by many to be especially healthy, such as organic products. Specifically, some people mistakenly assume that these foods are more nutritious just because they carry an “organic” label -an area of longstanding active debate among food and nutrition scientists.”

All of this bah-humbugging made me grouchy. So when I reunited with my family at the sampling station and the kids were double-fisting “sparkling cider” I snapped. It’s pop! Maybe with some juice mixed in. I ripped the little paper cups out of their fingers and told daddy to pound them. The tears did flow. I tried not to shoot eye-daggers at the sample lady. But then I found the cinnamon brooms and my faith in Hawaiian shirts was partially restored. Have you ever had a cinnamon broom in your house? Hello, holiday spirit! By the time we made it back to the parking lot we were significantly poorer and as I happily introduced kids to delicious unsulphered dried calmyra figs I thought I’d made my point. Family fun and a healthy lesson! I’m such a smart mom!

When I unpacked the groceries at home I discovered not one, but two, bottles of Trader Joe’s Sparkling Cider. I can’t win.

Now I’m not saying any of these foods are “bad” or that you shouldn’t eat them if you really want to eat them. But in the past I’d just sort of assumed that everything in the store was “healthy” or at least “healthier.” I’d made it into what I wanted it to be (my yuppie Barbie dream house?) instead of recognizing it for what it was.

Anyone else have a thing for healthy junk food? Or is it junky health food? Anyone else ever gotten suckered by the “health halo” effect? What’s your trigger word – “organic” “fiber” “25% less sugar”? (And for more info on food labeling lies, check out my top 10 offenders in my article!)


{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Sue November 12, 2012 at 3:00 am

It should probably be a no-brainer that organic cookies are still cookies after all. But I’ve fallen into that trap before, too. We don’t have a TJ around here but a similar store. I always check the fine print before I buy something, looking for shady ingredients and overall nutritional values. Don’t believe the labels!


Bek @ Crave November 12, 2012 at 3:01 am

Hahaa I love the notion of junky health food :P I think you’re absolutely spot on! Saying it’s made with wholegrains doesn’t mean it doesn’t have double the amount of sugar in it! I guess like any other store you’ve gotta look over the nutritional info, ingredients and look beyond the ‘halo’ you refer to. Awesome post! :)


Naomi/Dragonmamma November 12, 2012 at 6:55 am

I’ve developed “Health-halo Defogging Vision” over the past few years that allows me to see that “low fat” usually means “more sugar” and “all natural” means “no rat poison or house paint”.

Even the local farmer’s market is not immune. Just because you buy it outside next to the kale lady doesn’t make that gluten-free organic cookie a decent breakfast.


redhead November 12, 2012 at 7:06 am

I don’t think healthier junk food is necessarily bad, as long as that’s what you recognize it as. If you’re going to have a cookie and you want to eat a cookie with organic sugar or gluten-free flour (or in some cases, if you NEED gluten-free flour or dairy substitutes to eat the cookie), then go for it – As long as it’s still a cookie in your mind and not just like an apple. Sugar isn’t necessarily the devil as long as it’s in moderation. And while the gorilla munch whatever has a lot of it, it also has fewer additives and chemicals and other things than cinnamon toast crunch, so IF you’re going to get your kids a sweet cereal anyway, it sounds like a better choice. This reminds me of the studies they started doing that people who drank diet soda often ended up consuming more calories than people who drank regular (haven’t read recent research about the actual sweeteners, but one theory being they think they’re doing well with the diet soda so they let their guard down and end up eating more calories).

In any case – save the sparkling cider for Thanksgiving lunch/dinner, Christmas Eve dinner or New Years. Those were the times we were occasionally allowed to have sparkling juice growing up ;). It’ll be a treat for all of you!


Emily November 12, 2012 at 7:34 am

So true about TJ’s. A lot of their stuff is also loaded with SALT. I go there to buy staples for cheaper than at the grocery store: cage-free eggs, frozen fruit, dark chocolate, some nice cheeses, wine, beer, pita chips, nut butters, hand soap (the orange blossom soap…. mmmmm). I stay away from the prepared foods, cereals, etc. They’re pricey and no better than the grocery store alternatives.


Karen November 12, 2012 at 7:36 am

Gosh I miss TJ’s as obviously we don’t have them in Australia – and now I really want to try a peanutbutter filled pretzel, and desperately want a cinnamon broom – whatever that may be, which was so not the point of this post. I think I do pretty well most of the time for seeing food for what it is, even if I don’t always make the best choices.

But this reminds me of the story my partner told me recently of 2 of my sister-in-laws who were upset to hear from their new personal trainer that they should stop dipping their strawberries in chocolate each night as he did not consider it a “serve of fruit” as they did but an indulgence.


Sabrina November 12, 2012 at 8:37 am

That’s so funny! to be honest I think of TJs primarily as a delicious snack store- if want substantive food I shop eleswhere


Meghan@themeghamix November 12, 2012 at 8:46 am

One thing that has helped us a ton is to hardly buy any processed foods. I am a TJ-aholic, but I’m the perimeter gal, which saves us money and junky calories. I avoid most of the aisles, and if I need something from one, I leave my cart outside the aisle. This makes me stick to my list because I don’t want to lug an armful of treats back to the cart. (Laziness helps!)

But they do know how to sell stuff!!!


Crabby McSlacker November 12, 2012 at 8:56 am

LOVED this post as I have a similar love/hate relationship with TJ’s–and Whole Foods for that matter, where junk food still abounds as well. It just doesn’t feel fair to have to say “no” to so many tempting items when you’re in a store that’s supposed to be about healthy eating!

But they’re still both better than regular grocery stores for specialty items; I drink goat’s milk instead of cow (I digest it better) and stuff like, yes, red quinoa, coconut flour, etc are really hard to find at normal grocery stores. Oh, and seaweed snacks, which are junkier than regular seaweed, but a good alternative to chips when I want something savory.

It would be SO fun to go to a TJ’s with you sometime Charlotte, I think we’d be there for hours reading every label!


Happier Heather November 12, 2012 at 10:27 am

I think it’s funny that I’ve never considered Trader Joe’s to be a health food store. I just always saw them as a place to get some fun, unique food items…and cheap wine in their liquor store.


Alyssa (azusmom) November 12, 2012 at 11:23 am

(Sorry, this is a bit long-winded!)
I was just thinking about this yesterday: we had a party for my daughter’s birthday, and when I ran to the grocery store & saw the more expensive potato chips “made with organic ingredients”, I reminded myself that an organic potato chip is still a potato chip.
To my mind, buying organic
means buying food that hadn’t been grown using pesticides, or fed with antibiotics, etc. if something is MADE WITH organic ingredients, I have to weigh whether or not it’s worth the extra money. For a treat like chips, not really. Let’s face it by the time a potato is turned into a chip, it’s been so processed, fried, and coated in grease that it’s not really going to make a difference, health-wise, lol! :)
And it really does remind me of the Great Snackwells Phenonmenon of the early 90′s: make fat-free cookies, so everyone can eat twice as many!
I’m all for organic, local, & drug-free food when it’s available. But I also believe we need to trust our own common sense. A cookie, even one made with organic, non-GMO, gluten-free flour milled by silent monks under a full moon is still, in the end, a cookie.


Katie November 12, 2012 at 11:34 am

I actually think of TJs as the anti-health store; I think of it as the “fun store”. Kind of the Target of the grocery shopping world. Cheap fun food (as opposed to cheap fun plastic crap)! That said I do love both Target and TJs.

I’m such a label reader its hard to trick me anymore. I spend an entire day in my biology of food clas covering labels and a few days on nutrition. I think the kids hate me because this year, the day after we watched Dr. Lustig’s Sugar video, one student dared to show up in class and eat POP-TARTS!! Ohhhh….the daggers.


Nicky November 12, 2012 at 11:35 am

I lived in Los Angeles 20 years ago (I’m Canadian) and I loved TJs. I still miss it (sadly, I don’t think they have plans to expand to Canada). Health food stores have the best junk food. I’m savvy enough about my food to know what’s good and what’s not so healthy, but I still succumb occasionally.


Alyssa (Azusmom) November 12, 2012 at 11:35 am

(Sorry, this is a bit long-winded!)
I was thinking about this yesterday. We had a party for my daughter’s birthday, and when I ran to the grocery store &saw the potato chips “made with organic ingredients,” I reminded myself that an organic potato chi is still a potato chip.
To my mind, buying organic means buying food that hasn’t been grown using pesticides, fed with antibiotics, etc. If something is MADE WITH organic ingredients, I have to weigh whether or not i’s worth the extra money. For a once-in-a-while treat like potato chips, not really. Let’s face it, by the time a potato is turned into a chip, it’s been so processed, fried, and coated in grease that it’s not really going to make a difference, health-wise, lol!
And it really does remind me of the Great Snackwells Phenomenon of the early 90′s: Make fat-free cookies, so everyone can eat twice as many! :)
I’m all for organic, local, and drug-free food when it’s available. But I also believe we need to trust our own common sense. A cookie made with organic, non-GMO, gluten-free flour milled by silent monks under a full moon in the fields of Provence is still, in the end, a cookie.


Melanie November 12, 2012 at 12:38 pm

I love Trader Joes but don’t go too often. Mostly because the closest one is about 45 mins from my house but also because all the snack foods are so tempting! I love to go for the nitrate-free jerky, hormone free meat and some specialty items but i try not to even LOOK at the “healthy” junk food! The devil on my shoulder keeps telling me its healthy but I know I should eat clean. The only good thing about the junk food is it doesn’t have high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oil. So if you’re going to have cookies & chips, these are a better option but not good to have on a regular basis.


Naomi/Dragonmamma November 12, 2012 at 1:07 pm

Actually, Trader Joe’s does NOT sell itself as a health-food store. Here is a direct cut-and-paste from the “about us” page on their website:

“It all started in the 50s…
Would you believe we started out as a small chain of convenience stores? It’s true. Way back in 1958. We were called Pronto Markets. In ’67, our founder, the original Trader Joe, changed our name (yes, to Trader Joe’s) and the way we do business.
We made the stores bigger (if you can imagine), decked the walls with cedar planks and donned our crew in cool Hawaiian shirts. Most importantly, we started putting innovative, hard-to-find, great-tasting foods in the “Trader Joe’s” name. That cut our costs and saved you money. Still does.”

I’ve been shopping at Trader Joe’s since the 1970s, and I always thought of them as a place to buy gourmet-type convenience foods at regular grocery store prices.


Kim November 12, 2012 at 5:52 pm

My weakness is when candy (Hot Tamales, maybe) is fat free – I’m like oh good, eat it all!!!! Never mind that it is absolutely not sugar free and therefore making little fatty deposits all over my backside!!


Jonathan Aluzas November 12, 2012 at 7:41 pm

I love TJ’s too, but more from a “wow, what a great experience” standpoint than from a “wow, they have really healthy foods” perspective. Here’s the sad truth: If it comes in a package, it’s probably crap. Organic crap is still crap, it’s just pesticide-free crap. The best part of TJ’s is that they create an “experience.” You can get private-label foods that feel exotic, the staff is always helpful and happy, they actually listen to your complaints and suggestions. But their produce sucks and, by and large, you’re right; their food is pretty much like everyone else’s, but a little cheaper.


Jody - Fit at 54 November 12, 2012 at 10:11 pm

I never assume any food store – healthy or not as all healthy & good to eat for you foods. They would go out of business! ;) I shop at a few different healthy stores including my love of TJ’s BUT I know so many of the foods & the labels do not fit into my food plan. I see plenty of Instagram posts about some new food at TJ’s that I had already seen & red the label & knew it was not for me. We have to always be on our guard & read every little thing on that label – serving size, sodium, sugars fat saturated fat & the rest…. :)


Jess November 13, 2012 at 2:39 am

This post made me laugh! It is so spot on!! Definitely I convince myself they are healthier treats and feel less guilt.


Matt November 13, 2012 at 5:52 am

“Healthy” is one of those can’t lose marketing terms in our diet culture. It’s kind of like the word FREE. Just figure out a way to plaster is on your product, and you’ll sell more.

I finally realized that what makes a food healthy isn’t so much about the food but my own mental and mystical relationship with with. If I can use it for more good than bad it’s healthy. If it’s more harm than good then it’s unhealthy.

My 2 cents, but hey they are made with low glycemic copper so those are healthy too :)

I also think the same thing goes for the words “functional” “Natural” and “Intuitive” when it comes to exercise. Just place one of these words on your exercise or program and suddenly it’s the best thing in the world. Who can’t if your shoulder pops out of joint while doing it, it’s functional so keep doing it right? Or maybe doing an exercise on a weight machine isn’t functional or natural, but does that mean you should avoid it?


Geosomin November 13, 2012 at 8:46 am

I’ve ranted about this for a while. At first I admit I was kind of bitter that we don’t have a Trader Joes near me, but the more I looked into it, while there were a lot of great options, it also had a lot of “organic” junk. My sis in law eats gluten free dairy free low fat organic all the time (she has to) and still eats horribly as far as actual food goes. Through her I’ve learned how just because something is organic or “healthy” doesn’t mean it’s not full of sugar or fats…it’s like those “heart smart” labels they put on food in Canada as a marketing gimmick. I mean, they’re on fruit loops!
I would like to have more options for places to buy healthier foods, as locally it’s just at a few specialty (expensive) stores. I’ve found sticking to unprocessed foods is my way of keeping the junk down. And that way when I eat junk, I know it…and enjoy it thoroughly :)
I hope people take the time to read labels and don’t just fall for the slick sales gimmicks.


malevolent andrea November 13, 2012 at 7:18 pm

While I was recovering from surgery, one of my friends kindly brought by lunch one day that she’d purchased at Whole Foods. Sandwiches, fruit salad, baked chips. And whoopie pies for dessert. She said to me, “I like to pretend to myself those are good for you because they’re from Whole Foods.” I LOL’d because a.) my son and I love Whole Foods whoopie pies which b.) don’t even pretend to be healthy–they don’t even slap an “organic” sticker on them, but nevertheless c.) I do the same thing and kind of ignore that they’re the same whoopie pies they sell at the regular supermarket. I suppose I could delude myself into thinking I’m just fighting the good fight against orthorexia every time I eat one instead.


Quix November 14, 2012 at 12:02 pm

I feel like if I’m going to eat some junk food – I may as well go for higher quality junk food (lentil/pop chips/organic corn chips instead of cheetos, etc, unless I’m specifically craving something yucky). It’s not that it’s “healthy” for me so I have free reign to eat as much as I want, but I feel better about putting better quality ingredients in my body calorie for calorie/serving for serving. But I know that it’s just interchangable in the places in my life where I’d eat cheetos, not in the places of my life where I’d eat an apple or carrots or whatnot. :)


Jen November 15, 2012 at 9:16 am

A cookie is a cookie is a cookie. But if I’m going to have a cookie, I prefer the ones without artificial colors, HFCS, and partially hydrogenated oils. I buy Annie’s Fruit Snacks for the kids. Yes, they’re still just as sugary as the cheaper brands and they’re still processed, but at least they aren’t full of red dye #9839835.


julie November 15, 2012 at 12:43 pm

I would question even referring to TJs as a health food store, to me it seems just a little better than your average super-market. Besides, their produce is nasty, their meat is substandard, their nuts are often stale, and the rest is junk food. My cat would rather starve than eat their cat food. Good prices on beer, wine, and vodka!


Di November 16, 2012 at 2:50 pm

I don’t think these foods are bad, they are simply the lesser of two evils. Usually they are “cleaner” with less additives etc which I guess is the draw and rightly so. Sure it’s still junk food though. I guess it’s like the difference between a regular burger and fries, and a grass fed organic beef burger with organic skin on fries? The latter is obviously healthier but it’s still burger and fries.
Some of the options are still VERY unhealthy though and people just need to say NO! My tastes have changed so much in the last year that I struggle with processed foods now when I have to eat them (convenience). Thankful for that I am too!!!


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