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Should You be Eating Whole Wheat or Whole Grain, and Why?

Whole grains or foods made from them contain all the essential parts and naturally-occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed in their original proportions. If the grain has been processed (e.g., cracked, crushed, rolled, extruded, and/or cooked), the food product should deliver the same rich balance of nutrients that are found in the original grain seed,” as defined by the Whole Grains Council.  For instance, regardless of how oats are rolled, cut, or ground during processing, the oat does not lose any of its nutritional content. The three fundamental parts of the kernel is the bran, germ, and endosperm.  In order to be considered a whole grain, the food item must contain 100% of the original kernel.WholeGrainKernel_WGC_0

Whole grain is processed to include the whole grain seed, whereas white flour uses only the less nutritious endosperm.  By using all parts of the grain whole grain is more nutritious because it has higher levels of fiber, vitamins B6 and E, magnesium, zinc, folic acid and chromium.  The majority of which are lost when processing occurs to make white flour.  Refining wheat creates fluffy flour that makes light, airy breads and pastries. But nutrition is compromised for the taste of the beloved refined grains. The process strips away more than half of wheat’s B vitamins, 90 percent of the vitamin E, and virtually all of the fiber.

The health benefits of switching from refined to whole grain foods are well established, including lower risk of cardiovascular disease, weight gain, and type 2 diabetes.  Based on this evidence, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend that Americans consume at least three servings of whole grain products daily, and the new U.S. national school lunch standards require that at least half of all grains be whole grain-rich. However, no single standard exists for defining any product as a “whole grain.”

Determining what food items are actually whole gain or whole wheat can be challenging in the grocery store.  And then we ask the question: what is the difference between whole grain and whole wheat?  The Whole Grains council describes the difference between whole grain and whole wheat as the same difference between a carrot and a vegetable?”  We all know that all carrots are vegetables but not all vegetables are carrots. It’s similar with whole wheat and whole grain: Whole wheat is one kind of whole grain, so all whole wheat is whole grain, but not all whole grain is whole wheat.

A meta-analysis of seven major studies showed that cardiovascular disease (heart attack, stroke, or the need for a procedure to bypass or open a clogged artery) was 21 percent less likely in people who ate 2.5 or more servings of whole-grain foods a day compared with those who ate less than 2 servings a week.

The whole grain stamp produced by theCollage_webres Whole Grain Council started to appear on store shelves in mid-2005.  It recently received some criticism from the Harvard School of Public Health.

A common “Health Halo” is that often times people incorrectly assume that a product that is whole wheat is healthier than one that is not, in every sense.  Health claims, in this case whole wheat, on a product can produce a “halo effect” where consumers reported beneficial effects from the product beyond those specifically mentioned in the claim.  One healthy attribute leads consumers to assume that foods offer other healthy but unclaimed attributes.

The Harvard School of Public Health “found that grain products with the Whole Grain Stamp, one of the most widely-used front-of-package symbols, were higher in fiber and lower in trans fats, but also contained significantly more sugar and calories compared to products without the Stamp”.

This stamp only relays information about a food items whole grain content. It is not surprising that food producers have to add extra sugars to whole wheat products in order to achieve the taste that consumers demand.  Through this study Harvard simply found that just because has one good quality doesn’t equate to the entity of that product being healthy.

The key thing to remember is it must be 100%.  At the grocery store, check labels and chose items made with 100 percent whole wheat — meaning it is made with only whole-wheat flour, whereas breads and other things labeled simply “whole-wheat” might contain a mix of whole wheat and white flours.  Also as Harvard showed us, be conscious of the sugar content as well.





“Health Halo” Effect

As rates of overweight and obese Americans have reached record-levels, advertising claims have become more common on the fronts of food packaging, creating concerns that they may lead consumers to see foods as healthier than they really are (Brownell & Horgen, 2004; Nestle, 2002; Pomeranz, 2001). The effects of marketing can be significant because nutrition claims made on packaging can create “health halos” that make foods appear healthier than they are, leading to higher consumption yet lower perceived calorie intake. It is important to understand that influence of nutrition claims (e.g. “low fat”, “high fiber”) on health-related judgments and decisions.   The effects of health claims on packaging is seen in a study done by Wansink and Chandon (2006) found that labeling both “healthy” and “unhealthy” food as “low fat” reduced calorie estimation by 20%-25%, and increased what was considered to be the “appropriate serving size” by 20%.

Chandon and Wansink introduced the “health halo” effect in 2007, referring to the findings that people tend to underestimate the calorie content of foods in restaurants where food choices are advertised as healthy, compared to restaurants that do not advertise a health image. One healthy attribute leads consumers to assume that foods offer other healthy but unclaimed attributes. Health claims on a product can produce a “halo effect” where consumers reported beneficial effects from the product beyond those specifically mentioned in the claim.  This shows that the way consumers are processing the information they seeing on packages is far more complex than them simply processing it, they use their own beliefs and ideas and therefor interpret the information in a different way than it may be presented. For instance many consumers may mistakenly think that low fat equates to low calorie.

The mere presence of a low-fat claim has been shown to lead to underestimation of calories and greater consumption (Wansink and Chandon 2006). In a study products with a half-the-fat claim and half-the-calorie claim 22 percent of the participants made a positive “health halo” inference and thought the product was “healthy” or “good for you.” Though the study found that the products that claimed to be “better-for-you” tended to be “healthier”. But this is not to say that “healthier” is synonymous with “healthy”.

“Labeling snacks as low fat increases food intake during a single consumption occasion by up to 50%. This is robust across both hedonic utilitarian snacks, across young and old consumers across self-reported nutrition experts and novices, in public and private consumption, and regardless of whether people serve themselves or not” Wansink and Chandon 2006.

Studies by Wanskin and Chandon 2006 suggested that low-fat nutrition claims increase consumption because they increase perception of the appropriate serving size and reduce anticipate consumption guilt. “Health halos influence consumption because people feel that they can eat more of healthy food, or can eat more unhealthy (but tasty) food after eating healthy food without suffering any adverse health consequences” (Ramanathan and Williams 2007).

The effect that marketing can have on consumers purchasing habits is shown in Kellogg’s decision to market its first health claim. In 1984, Kellogg worked with the National Cancer Institute to endorse a health claim for All-Bran cereal, within six months the products market share increased by 47%.   Kozup, Cyer, and Burton (2003) showed that “when a heart-healthy claim is on the package or menu, consumers generally judge the product to reduce the likelihood of heart disease or stroke, but favorable nutrition information lead to more positive attitudes toward the product, nutrition, and purchase intentions.” When unfavorable nutrition information is available, the heart-healthy claim has no influence on either the evaluations or disease risk perception.

This overall pattern results suggests that consumers may be somewhat wary of health claims and prefer instead to trust the information contained on the Nutrition Facts panel when it is available. Favorable nutrition information on Nutrition Facts panels have even stronger effects than health claims on product attitude and purchase intentions. Never the less, results showed that there were positive effects of the inclusion of a heart-healthy claim on a package or menu.

Marketers Use Words to Influce the Way You Think About Food

“[At] no point in US history have food products displayed so many symbols and statements proclaiming nutrition and health benefits.” The marketing that companies use on the front of their products in order to sell their goods is important because it reaches consumers at time of purchase and consumption. The amount of new food products, in 2000, that were marked “reduced/low fat”, 2,076 out of 16,890, had peaked at this time. There is a growing concern about nutrition and consumers wanting nutritional information on labels and they want more health food items conveniently available to them, found Nestle and Ludwig.

In the past years, marketers have become increasingly likely to make heavy use of nutrition claim (including “low fat”), health claims, and vague unregulated claims or health sales (“smart choice” or “good for you”). The words that marketers use to explain products can have a profound effect on consumer’s perceived nutrition of the food. There is a rise in the amount of foods claiming to be “better-than-you” because “the message that a food or food component is naturally and intrinsically healthy is one of the most appealing to consumers in all cultures” (Stone 2009).

Almost 70 percent of American adults age 20 or over the a were identified as overweight or obese.  What makes obesity so relevant in this century?  High body mass index (BMI) among children and adolescents has become and continues to be a major public health concern in the United States because it is the source of so many health issues. Children with high BMI often become obese adults, and obese adults are at risk for many chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers.  The key issue is that the majority of these diseases are preventable.  But when people chose their food items, nutrition ranks last in a survey of the drivers of food choices, after taste, cost, and convenience.

This social issue trend can be traced all the way back to the grocery store and restaurants.  When one walks down a grocery isle they are bombarded with a variety of products claiming to be healthy for them, whole grain, low-fat, low cholesterol, sugar free, fiber rich, the claims are endless.  The decision to purchase processed food products differs from other purchasing decision. This is due to the fact that a health claim present of the front of packaging is typically encounter before nutrition information, which is usually present on the back or side panes, is processed.

Even when consumers are aware of the persuasive intent behind various marketing communication tools, they may not realize that their consumption decisions are being influenced, Chandon, Pierre, and Wansink (2012).

The effects that health claims can have on their perception of a food item can be shown just by the name of the food. The name of the food has a strong influence on how consumers’ expectations of how tasty, filling, or fattening the food will be, which are often uncorrelated with reality. For example, a study showed that branding the same food as a “salad special” versus “pasts special” or as “fruit chews” versus “and chews” increased dieters perceptions of the healthfulness or tastiness of the food as well as its actual consumption. Although, the name changes had no impact on non-dieters. This same effect of wording can be seen in again in that food is perceived to be leaner and higher quality when labeled “75% fat-free” than “25% fat.”

The effect of key words on packaging happens as well in other products who have health claims that do not specifically claim to be low-fat. Andrews, Netermeyer, and Burton (1998) show that consumers falsely infer that foods low in cholesterol are low in fat. Similarly, there is anecdotal evidence that some consumers erroneously believe that low-fat nutrition claim indicate fewer calories (National Institutes of Health 2004).

The effects of marketing can be significant because nutrition claims made on packaging can create “health halos” that make foods appear healthier than they are, leading to higher consumption yet lower perceived calorie intake. It is important to understand that influence of nutrition claims (e.g. “low fat”, “high fiber”) on health-related judgments and decisions.

Chandon and Wansink introduced the “health halo” effect in 2007, referring to the findings that people tend to underestimate the calorie content of foods in restaurants where food choices are advertised as healthy, compared to restaurants that do not advertise a health image. One healthy attribute leads consumers to assume that foods offer other healthy but unclaimed attributes. Health claims on a product can produce a “halo effect” where consumers reported beneficial effects from the product beyond those specifically mentioned in the claim.

The Nutritional Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA) establish criteria by which nutrient and health claims can be made on food packaging. Although health claims have been used on package labels since 1984, they have been criticized as vague, trivial, or misleading (Silvergald 1996). Although foods that are sold for immediate consumption, such as in restaurants, on airplanes, and from vending machines, are not covered by all aspects of NLEA.

What’s the Deal With Fat?

Fat is a necessary part of a person’s diet.  Fat is essential to your health because it supports a number of your body’s functions.  What can be tricky is that there are numerous types of fats both good and bad; therefore we have to be conscious of the type of fats we consume.  The fat that is found naturally in food is dietary fat which can be found in plants and animals.  Though fat can be beneficial its dark side is that it is high in calories and a consistent excess of calories can lead to weight gain and other related issues.  Managing one’s intake of fat can be trying because fat has found its way into many food items.  Americans on average are exceeding the recommended maximum consumption of fat by more than 50 percent.

Fat has always had a negative connotation and has always been distinguished as unhealthy.  A pile of oil atop of a piece of three cheese pizza may not look appealing but the brain swoons once it is inside of the mouth.  Fat is as much a feeling as it is a taste.  The trigeminal nerve is responsible for transmitting sensations from the mouth to the brain.  “Fats and fat-soluble molecules are responsible for the characteristic texture, flavor and aromas of many foods and play a major role in determining the overall palatability of the diet” (Drwnoswski and Schwartz 1990) “the sweeter and denser stimuli were perceived as lower in fat, despite the fact that the actual amount of fat remained constant.

Taste buds have five primary tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (a savory taste).  Fat has no such receptor but is extremely alluring to the brain. The affect that fat has on the brain was investigated in a study done on sugar and fat done by neuroscientist Edmund Rolls in 2003.  It found that fat is just as potent to the brain as sugar, “Fat and sugar both produce strong reward effects in the brain,” Rolls said. Scientist Adam Drwnowski  studied just how alluring fat is. “There was no bliss point, or break point for fat,” found Drwonski “The more fat there was, the better.”  This means that unlike sugar, which has a point of there being too sweet fat did not, there was never too much.

Surveys have shown that grocery shoppers who stop to read nutrition labels look first and foremost at the fat content of foods.  This has led to the over saturation of products that claim to have less fat or lower fat, and it has initiated a host of marketing tricks the industry uses to make it seem like they have cut back. “Low-fat”, “reduced fat”, or “fat-free” products are not necessarily healthy and they can also cause the consumer to mistaken the product to be healthier than it actually is.  Simply put, the health halo effect leads people to overestimate the overall healthfulness of a food based on one narrow attribute.  Studies have shown that people eat far more low-fat foods than they do traditional versions.  In order to reduce the amount of fat in a product food manufactures have to compensate for the change by replacing it with carbohydrates from sugar, refined grains, or starch.  The exchange for switching out fat for sugar is not justifiable because sugar has now been shown to be even more harmful to your diet.

Fat comes in many forms, a few that are recognizable or “visible” – table spreads and salad and cooking oils – or “invisible” fats included in meat, dairy products, and many process foods.  The different kinds of fat are usually seen as good or bad:

  • “Good” fats—monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—lower disease risk. Foods high in good fats include vegetable oils (such as olive, canola, sunflower, soy, and corn), nuts, seeds, and fish.
  • “Bad” fats—saturated and, especially, trans fats—increase disease risk. Foods high in bad fats include red meat, butter, cheese, and ice cream, as well as processed foods made with trans fat from partially hydrogenated oil.

Low-fat is an age old diet myth, what is important is the type of fat.  Some sources of fat are undesirable for instance Michael Moss, author of Salt, Sugar, Fat stated “Americans now eat as much as 33 pounds or more cheese a year, triple that amount we consumed in early 1970s.

Saturated fat has been demonized since the 1970s when a landmark study concluded that there was a correlation between incidence of coronary heart disease and total cholesterol, which then correlated with the percentage of calories provided by saturated fat, explains Aseem Malhotra, interventional cardiology specialist in a recent article at the British Medical Journal (BMJ). “But correlation is not causation,” he says. Nevertheless, we were advised to “reduce fat intake to 30% of total energy and a fall in saturated fat intake to 10%.”  “It is time to bust the myth of the role of saturated in heart disease and wind back the harms of dietary advice that has contributed to obesity.”

Subway healthy?

Last week Subway announced that it will spend $41 million over three years to encourage young eaters to eat more produce.  They have aliened with the First Lady in her campaign to promote healthier eating and lifestyles through the Partnership for a Healthier America nonprofit organization.  Subways changes will only affect their kid’s menu to mirror federal standards for school lunch.  That includes offering apples on the side and low-fat or nonfat plain milk or water as a default beverage.  This is a commendable step in the right direction, but it’s aimed at kids.  What do adults think of their “healthy” Subway meals? They must be pretty supportive because Subway was one of the Best-Perceived Brands of 2013 according to AdWeek.

Which leads us to my favorite topic “Health Halos”.  A product that is marketed as being low fat, natural, whole grain and so on cause people to underestimate the calories and overestimate the health value of the product.  The same thing can happen with a food dish.  One perceives a salad as a restaurant to be healthy because it is a salad when in actuality many salads have as many calories as any other main course.  I’m going to pause there, calories are necessary but I’m talking about extremely high and from bad sources like fatty dressing.  The effect goes even further than what food we choose to eat, also where we choose to get it from.  Subway’s low-fat advertising cause a significant halo effect.  “People who eat at McDonald’s know their sins, ” Dr. Chandon said, “but people at Subway think that a 1,000-calorie sandwich has only 500 calories.”  This does not mean that you have to give up your beloved subs,  Dr. Chandon suggests that you simply take health halos into account.

This healthy perception even spills over into side dishes consumers choose.  “Even though the Subway sandwich had more calories than the Big Mac, the people ordering it were more likely to add a large nondiet soda and cookies to the order.  So while they may have felt virtuous, they ended up with meals averaging 56 percent more calories than the meals ordered from McDonald’s.”

The popularity and emphasis of healthier foods is on the rise simultaneously while there is an increase in obesity – the American obesity paradox.  “Consumers estimate that familiar sandwiches and burgers contain up to 35% fewer calories when they come from restaurants claiming to be healthy, such as Subway, than when they come from restaurants not making this claim, such as McDonald’s” (Chandon and Wansink 2007).

“People are more likely to underestimate the caloric content of main dishes and to choose higher-calorie side dishes, drinks, or desserts when fast-food restaurants claim to be healthy (e.g., Subway) compared to when they do not (e.g., McDonald’s)” Chadon and Wansink 2007.

So next time you choose what restaurant to go to picking one that is perceived to be healthy isn’t enough to ensure you eat a healthy meal, you also have to be conscious of the type of marketing they throw at you and choose a meal that is healthy.  I have based a large part of my arguments on a study done by Brain Wansink and Pierre Chadon’s research that you can read here.