Health Halos: Fighting Back

In an earlier post, I learned about the health halo effect and its impact on how we perceive the healthfulness of the foods we eat. In short, the health halo effect describes the tendency for consumers to be manipulated by clever wording into thinking that a product is healthier or contains fewer calories than another comparable product.

If a product is sitting on the shelf claiming to be “natural”, “organic”, or “wholesome”, how do we know when to listen and when to tune out? I’ve consulted a few sources from across the Internet to compile a short list of tips on how to see through the hype and debunk those pesky health halos.

Use common sense

No matter how much money Subway throws into TV spots, it can’t magically make a foot of enriched bread into a great meal. Bad choices can be made even at a place where you’re supposedly “eating fresh”. While Subway does offer some lighter options, a footlong meatball marinara isn’t doing anything for your diet, your waistline, or your arteries.

Don’t be fooled: it’s still a potato chip.

Similarly, low-sugar Oreos are still Oreos. If there’s anything I learned from my Dad, it’s that less unhealthy doesn’t equal healthy.

Learn the implications behind the buzz words

The FDA regulates the use of certain words in food marketing. Words like “healthy” and “low-fat” can only be applied to products meeting certain criteria.

The FDA website also has a long list of tables (only one of which I have linked) describing what qualifications a food product must meet in order to be called “low sugar” or “non-fat”. (You probably thought non-fat mean no fat! Think again.)

Although certain words have been placed under restrictions, the English language is robust and full of synonyms. For example, explains that, while “healthy” and variants such as “healthful” and “health promoting” are FDA-regulated, similar terms such as “nutritious” and “wholesome” are not (full article here, and it’s well worth a read). As the author Richard Perlmutter points out, “if the day comes that the FDA defines these words, food companies will probably switch to using other words or phrases with a similar meaning.”

Learn which terms have little bearing on health at all

Nutritionist Cynthia Sass has found that many of her clients misunderstand the implications of terms like “grass-fed”, “organic”, and “local”, believing that some of them imply far more than what is the case. Generally, a good rule of thumb is to take a term completely at face-value.

“Local” simply means that a product was locally-sourced; it has no bearing on the health value of a product, and does not mean that it is organic. Similarly, gluten-free means just that: the product contains fewer than 20 ppm of gluten, but may not be healthy (regardless of whatever your foodie cousin may say). Full article here.

At the end of the day, organic cookies are still cookies! The linked Cornell study finds that an “organic” label may influence how eaters perceive the taste and caloric content of the same or comparable food items.

Nutrition411 also has a great explanation of some common terms that help to debunk some common health halo effects.

Read the ingredients

Once you understand the labeling practices promoted by the FDA, the best way to ensure that what you’re putting in your body is the right stuff is to consult the box.

Not everyone knows how to read a nutrition label on the back of a box. (Who teaches this skill? I didn’t learn it in school.) The FDA website once again has a great section on how to read nutrition labels on food packaging.

Delving into the ingredients list below can be a daunting task, as very few are immediately recognizable nowadays. The curious consumer would do well to research common food ingredients to avoid, but beware: it’s very difficult to avoid all demonized ingredients and continue to eat any food at all.

Even while eating healthily, portion control is vital!

The most nefarious element of the “health halo” effect is the observation that consumers will, when believing that they just ate a healthy meal, tend to supplement the meal with soft drinks or desserts. (See the Cornell report on this subject.)

Diners who feel that they’ve just made a healthy meal choice will frequently allow themselves to indulge in a side dish. Combined, the meal and the side can more than make up the calories of a much less healthy dish.

Furthermore, Cornell has also done a study on the effect of the low-fat label on portion sizes. Researchers found that participants in the study would eat up to 50% more of a snack labeled low-fat than participants eating the same snack without the low fat label. “On average, participants underestimated the calorie content of “low–fat” M&Ms and granola by 48% and 50%, respectively.” (A Cornell report and link to the full study can be found here.)

Making a good choice doesn’t end at the selection of the product; portion control plays a major part in staying healthy! It doesn’t matter if you choose a chocolate bar with 50% less sugar if you eat two chocolate bars!

I don’t have time to keep up with all of this! Nobody does!

With the FDA, food producers, marketers, and customers in the mix, it’s no wonder sifting through food products for healthy choices is overwhelming! However, if you take the time to educate yourself even briefly about healthy eating habits, you should be able to steer yourself away from suspicious claims and poor choices.

Food manufacturers are banking (literally) on the fact that their customers don’t know what it means when they claim that a food is “wholesome”, “local”, or “nutritious”. Hopefully these tips will provide the first few steps in understanding what a food product might really have to offer!


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