“Health Halos”

I have some terrible news: if it tastes good, chances are it’s not good for you. Once upon a time, how a food performed nutrients-wise may have meant less than how easy it was to get your kids to eat it. However, in correspondence with the rise of a more health-conscious America, “tasty” isn’t enough of a selling point anymore. Companies have listened, and now “BPA Free”, “Organic”, and “Low Sugar” products are lining the shelves. That’s fantastic!

… Right?

Paradoxically, with this new way of thinking, obesity rates have been on the rise. According to stateofobesity.org, “Over the past 35 years, obesity rates [in adults] have more than doubled.” While that rate has been stabilizing (at a remarkably high level, mind) since 2005, it begs the question: if our food looks like it’s getting healthier, why aren’t we?

A study by Cornell posits that this is due to the “health halo” effect, which leads consumers to “believe that meals advertised as healthier have fewer calories.” In the study, diners at Subway and McDonalds were asked to estimate the caloric content of their respective meals. Despite the chosen meals being calorically similar, the students valued the Subway meals as having remarkably fewer calories.

Compare the marketing strategy of either restaurant and tell me which one you’d label as the healthier choice.

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Not only this, but “health halos” have penetrated the supermarket on a widespread scale. Rather than improving the products themselves to suit a health-conscious consumer base, producers are embellishing the packaging to makes products appear more healthy by describing themselves as such.

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Wow! I can get my Vitamin D from Frosted Flakes?

The “health halo” effect can take many forms. Some products (such as the Frosted Flakes above) focus on one small aspect of the healthfulness of a product while sweeping flaws such as high caloric content or sugar content under the rug. Others (such as Subway) use viral marketing to rebrand a food as a good or fresh choice. Hence, if we are hungry, we now totally have permission to “grab a Snickers” rather than food consisting of something other than chocolate, caramel, and nougat.

Most puzzlingly is the trend of packaging that boast facts that have nothing to do with the merit or healthiness of a product.

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“Created by a school teacher!”

Isn’t this illegal?

Well, not really. A little shady, yes, but most of these companies are not breaking any laws (and in some cases, they’re actually telling the truth, albeit in a very misleading way).

The FDA does regulate the use of some terms pertaining to the nutritional content of a product, but companies can get around these restrictions by taking advantage of how little consumers actually know about health halo buzz words. Many consumers believe that “all natural” means healthy, when in reality, it simply means that “the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances”. Heck, the FDA doesn’t even have a definition for the term “natural”.

Similarly, many consumers pick up “multigrain” breads and snacks when what they are really looking for is “100% whole grain”. And don’t even get me started on caramel-coloring in enriched breads to make them look healthier.

If you’re interested in how marketing can skew the supposed healthfulness of a product, this is a good place to start. The linked slideshow exposes a few commonly-used terms and explains what they really have to do with the benefits of the product.

Looking for advice on how to see through these sneaky health halos? I’ve written a follow-up post detailing a few tips on how to thwart clever packaging and expose the products that are really worth a buy.

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