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The Health Halo and Our Eating Habits

You may have heard the term “Health Halo” being used recently in reference to certain foods. This term can be applied to foods labeled with health claims such as Organic, Natural, or even by companies who demonstrate social responsibility via supporting or promoting positive social or community causes, or by producing products that are Fair Trade environmentally friends, cruelty free, etc.

How the health halo changes our eating habits

So what is the Health Halo and how does it affect us?

Essentially, the Health Halo describes the concept that consumers will view foods as healthier or more nutritious based on the labels companies use to describe them or even actions of the company itself. Part of the reason for this is that we as consumers make inferences about the nutritional value of foods, without actually knowing whether they are true.

A recent study (here) showed that the health halo changes assumptions consumers make about nutritional value of certain foods. When there was more missing information about a food, consumers were less confident of their health value and this was associated with reduced overall consumption of that food. On the other hand, when a food was labelled with Organic, All Natural, Real, Sugar Free, Fat Free, and so on, consumers inferred overall higher nutrition and health value of those foods. This was true for a variety of food types: potato chips, orange juice, chocolate. Additionally, consumers subsequently ate these foods more freely as they were assumed to be “healthy” and therefore have more favourable nutrition and calorie content. A great example of a Health Halo food is veggie chips in any form – they can easily be interpreted as “just vegetables”. However, they are vegetables processed in much the same way as potato chips, with plenty of added fat and salt (remember, potatoes in their natural form are a vegetable too!).

Additionally, another study (here) showed that consumers are more likely to underestimate calories in their meal from restaurants that seem healthier vs. ones that are more associated with a less healthy choice (in this instance, Subway vs. McDonalds). Not only was that the case, but consumers chose higher-calorie sides along with their meal (cookies, chips, pop) when they perceived the actual meal to be healthier!

Interestingly, the Health Halo applies not only to nutritionally-appealing catch phrases, but also to social ethics claims and perceived positive social responsibility of the distributing company. One study (here) showed that chocolate described as Fair Trade, and that is sourced from a company that treats workers fairly, is actually perceived as having fewer calories than regular chocolate. Again, the lower-calorie perception promoted higher overall intake. Additionally, this worked in reverse, where “unethical” chocolate was perceived as higher calories. Of note the effect was stronger in consumers with higher desire to make ethical food choices. Another study (here) suggested that the reputation of a company itself for social responsibility created a Health Halo for its products – foods from companies that seemed more socially responsible were seen as having lower calorie content, and subsequently consumers overconsumed those foods.

What to do?

This certainly doesn’t mean that no foods are healthy, or that you should avoid foods that seem healthier! Furthermore, there is something to be said for supporting companies who are socially responsible, as well as organic and ethical food production. Sometimes the best thing to do is to be aware! Understand that the Health Halo exists and consider where you might have assumed a product to be better for you as a reflection of how it’s presented or the company who produces it.

Verify the facts: Sometimes products really are healthy! But it’s always better to know than to assume. Check ingredient lists and nutrition facts tables for confirmation. If you’re really not sure, compare them to a produce seen as less healthy. Using our veggie chips vs. potato chips example, veggie chips are really only slightly lower in calories, fat and sodium per serving than potato chips, with about 10 calories less, 1g of fat less and 60mg sodium less than potato chips. That doesn’t count for much in the event two servings are eaten because they’re “healthy”!

Understand the portion size – This is always true, and doesn’t go away with “healthier” foods. Portion sizes are always important to keep in mind!

Which foods do you think have a Health Halo?

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