Have You Ever Heard Of “The Health Halo Effect?”
IS THIS “GOOD OR BAD?”
I was looking at a text from my 19 year-old daughter who is attending college in North Carolina. She was at a “nutrition” seminar to support a friend of hers and the company was, as companies will do, praising their nutrition products. She had sent me a picture of the nutrition label of one of the company’s bars and wanted to know what I thought. After a quick calculation, I responded, “Well, 41% of the calories are coming from fat and that little bar has 2 ½ teaspoons of sugar in it so no, not good.”
“I knew it!” she exclaimed. “My friend thinks this stuff is good for her but I told her it wasn’t! Even the representative selling the stuff couldn’t clearly explain why their products were so great for you!” I was very proud of my daughter because I always imagined that 99% of what I was saying to her went in one ear and out the other: “Eat breakfast! Limit eating out! Read your nutrition labels! Be your own health advocate!” But that text proved to me that she did, in fact, listen and was standing up for her own health by taking the time to text me to find out if the product was really as good as it was touted to be.
THE HEALTH HALO EFFECT
Like my daughter’s friend, many Americans are attempting to change their eating habits by making more healthful food choices. What’s unfortunate, though, is they are putting too much faith in the food industry to do right by them when it comes to providing healthful options. People need to understand that much of the food industry doesn’t have the health of their consumers in mind. What they do have in mind is how much revenue they can generate from a particular product. To ensure this happens, the companies do research. Lots of research to discover the best ways to move their products off the shelves. One of the most important lessons the research has taught these companies is that “people think foods with front-of-package health claims have fewer calories and are better for their health.” (Senger 33)1
Enter the “Heath Halo Effect”: an advertising strategy in which a company will proclaim on the front of a package the many supposed health benefits of a product in order to entice the health-conscious consumer to buy it.
HOW THE HALO WORKS
Many people don’t know how to read a nutrition label; instead, they rely on what is splashed across the front of the package in order to determine whether the product is something they should buy or not. As Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH and a professor of nutrition at New York University points out, “People like to buy foods with a ‘health aura.’1 So they will purchase products that make claims such as, “Non GMO,” “1/3 Less Fat,” and “Reduced Sugar” simply because these claims make them feel better about their food choices. The sad truth is that many of these front-of-package claims are very misleading. The food that one is buying “because it’s a healthy choice” doesn’t really live up to its claim.
For example, one popular cereal has emblazoned on its box “Omega-3 250 mg ALA from FLAXSEED!” The reported health benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids have been widely publicized. And as such, the supplementation of Omega-3s by way of fish oil and flax seeds has risen. So the average consumer, who has heard Omega-3s are beneficial to heart health and have anti-inflammatory properties, may well be enticed to purchase this cereal because of the health benefits indirectly promised by the front of the package. However, if the consumer would take a second to turn their attention to the actual nutrition label on the side, they may notice a couple of unsettling facts.
First, those healthy flax seeds, they are number seven on a list of seven ingredients (ingredients are listed from most to least abundant). Second, one cup of this cereal provides a whopping 4 ¼ teaspoons of sugar! And if you’re eating it with a cup of skim milk? You’re now looking at 7 ¼ teaspoons of sugar. Currently, the American Heart Association recommends ingesting no more than 6 teaspoons and 9 teaspoons (for women and men respectively) as a total dietary intake of added sugars.
Here’s the paradox: one reason people consume Omega-3s is because of their anti-inflammatory benefits. However, over consumption of sugar is proven to release pro-inflammatory cytokines2 whose overproduction has been linked to diseases such as atherosclerosis and cancer. Is what the consumer eating really that beneficial to their health?
BE YOUR OWN ADVOCATE
The “Health Halo Effect” is everywhere. Because it is, I can’t stress enough the importance of learning how to understand the nutrition facts provided by the food industry. I recently presented at a nutrition seminar and one of the participants proudly stated, “Well, when I eat at _______, I always get the roast turkey and Swiss sandwich because I know turkey is better for me than the roast beef.” She was shocked to learn that her “healthy” choice actually had 350 more calories, 14 more grams of fat, and 10 grams more sugar than the large roast beef!
My daughter still doesn’t know how to read a label (and yes, I’ve shown her), but at least she is aware of the “Health Halo Effect” and has no problem using me as a resource to check the facts. My hope is that as she continues to mature and understand the importance of her health and the role the food choices she makes has on her well-being. My hope is that she will graduate to scrutinizing the labels and ingredients to verify the product is all it’s cracked up to be.
I encourage you to do the same. You need to watch out for your own health because I promise you, the food industry certainly isn’t.
1) Senger, Megan. What You Don’t Know About Food Labeling Could Undermine Your Health. Idea Fitness Journal. March 2015. 30-37.
2) Small proteins released by cells that cause specific effects on the interactions and communications between cells (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2785020/)
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