6 Sneaky Ways Health Food Stores Make You Buy Unhealthy Foods

6 minute read

You’re standing in the aisle of the local health store, scratching your head, trying to buy some cookies. Should you go with the certified-organic, fair-trade, extra-virgin selection? Or the hormone-free, non-GMO, ancient-grain option? Or should you just go across the street to the 7-Eleven and buy a box of Oreos?

Health food stores, once the province of surfers, yogis, and people who say “man” a lot, have become as ubiquitous as downward dogs and sun salutations. Today, there are 300 Trader Joe’s and 279 Whole Foods stores across the U.S, plus countless mom-and-pop health-food shops; even traditional supermarkets like Safeway have begun pursuing a bite of the organic apple. But here’s a secret these stores don’t want you to know: Just because a dessert pops up in the health-food section doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

“A lot of products in those stores have a ‘health halo,’ meaning we think because they’re there they must be healthy,” says Lisa Cimperman, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In other words, an organic cookie is still a cookie. Ditto for snack foods and some protein bars: A chip is a chip, whether it comes from a potato, sweet potato, or any other vegetable. The team at Eat This, Not That! cruised the aisles of Whole Foods and similar chains to uncover just how health-food stores may be making us fat.

1. They Drive Your Senses Senseless

Those delicious in-store product samples that you find in every specialty supermarket? They not only whet your appetite for the product, but also encourage you to buy more food overall, according to a study from Arizona State University. In fact, the research indicates that even the smell of cooking food might contribute to this effect. The stores are well aware of this. In fact, Fresh Market invites you to “help yourself to a sample of freshly brewed coffee” and brags that “fragrant smells fill the atmosphere.”

Eat This! Tip: Rather than grazing on whatever snacks are on display, find a food with healthy nutritionals—and ask an employee to let you sample it. At Whole Foods, it’s company policy to let you try anything in the store.

2. They Bulk You Up ‘in Bulk’

On the Fresh Market website, the store claims to have the largest bulk snack selection “in town.” But be careful what you buy in this bulk section: You may leave with a bulk of your own. Why? By filling your own bag with a big scoop, you’ll likely underestimate how much you’ve served yourself. Case in point: A Cornell University study found that nutritionists who were asked to serve themselves ice cream with large bowls and spoons dished out about 57 percent more than those given smaller bowls and spoons.

Eat This! Tip: Buy basic staples like spices, legumes and grains in bulk—like amaranth, a high-protein, naturally gluten-free seed. Or fill your bag with green tea, available in many stores.

3. They Obscure Calorie Counts

When you buy a package of brand-name cookies, the complete nutrition information is listed. But when you buy cookies made at an in-store bakery, you won’t find calorie counts. That goes for all the bakery items, from the “gourmet muffins” at the Fresh Market, to the “bakery fresh chocolate chip cookies” at Trader Joe’s, to the “gluten-free vanilla cupcakes” at Whole Foods. For perspective, just one of those Whole Foods cupcakes packs 480 calories. Knowing those numbers is critical: University of Mississippi researchers found that unhappy people—who are more likely to overindulge in comfort foods—ate 69 percent fewer calories when they checked the calorie content before digging in.

Eat This! Tip: Ask an employee to look up the calorie count.

4. They Make the Junk Look Gourmet

Ever notice that more expensive products tend to come in fancier packages? Researchers at the University of Michigan recently found that food purveyors may actually use fancy fonts and labels to help justify higher prices. The scientists theorize that attractive fonts and labels give people the perception that they are getting more value for the higher cost. Think about it: Would you like a piece of cake—or a piece of CAKE?

Eat This! Tip: Don’t be a sucker for seductive marketing. Instead, indulge in foods that look cool and are cool.

5. They Bask in the Health Halo

Do you consider products from specialty supermarkets to be healthier than those from other grocery stores? If the answer is yes, you could be doing your waistline a disservice. When people guess the number of calories in a sandwich coming from a “healthy” restaurant, they estimate that it has, on average, 35 percent fewer calories than they do when it comes from an “unhealthy” restaurant, according to a study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Eat This! Tip: Remember this the next time you reach for that package of Whole Foods’ Organic Fruit & Nut Granola. One cup of this “healthy” product contains almost 500 calories. A decent cup of cereal should have fewer than 200.

6. They Buffet Your Belly With Buffets

If you’re watching your weight, don’t step near the Whole Foods buffet. Cornell University researchers found heavier diners tend to overindulge in buffet settings. (Surprise!) Our real beef: While Whole Foods lists selections’ ingredients on the buffet’s ID labels, it doesn’t provide nutrition information for any of them.

Eat This! Tip: Skip water-logged foods like tomatoes or grapes—because you’re charged by weight, they amp up the cost.

This article originally appeared on Eat This, Not That!

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