Notes for the Road: Walk Georgia Blog

Beware of the Health Halo

By Jordan Lord BS, BSFCS and Alison Berg, PhD, RDN, LD

Have you ever accepted that second slice of pie because it was “low carb” or “fat free?” Maybe you ate a whole sleeve of cookies, but weren’t that worried about it because they were labeled “organic.” This phenomenon, known as the “health halo,” occurs when we overestimate the healthiness of these products because of a brand name, marketing claims or labels. Even though it sounds angelic, the health halo itself can actually be counterproductive.

In a study performed in New York, everyday shoppers were given identical products to taste test1. Nutritionally, the products were the same. The only difference was that one product was clearly labeled organic. The researchers found that most of the people thought the food with the organic label tasted better and was worth more money! This study shows how we can be influenced by packaging. The health halo changes our perception of quality and cost. Most importantly it can also cause us to overindulge without guilt.

Often times we use the halo as our shield. We think, “Well this sandwich with bacon, guacamole and cheese is from a health food store, so I should be able to eat the whole thing… and eat the organic chips too.” The health halo doesn’t just cover single products; it also extends to grocery stores or restaurants. Is Subway® better for you than McDonald’s®? Many people would say yes, but the real answer is that it depends on what you order. Researchers found that people perceived meals with identical calorie counts from Subway® and McDonald’s® to be very different2. Not only did they underestimate the amount of calories they were consuming from the Subway® sandwich, they also added on more calories from side items to the sandwich. The result was that they consumed more calories eating at Subway® than when they ate at McDonald’s®.

So, how do we avoid the pitfalls of the health halo?

The best thing we can do for ourselves is to ignore all the flashy packaging and claims on the item. Instead we need to find the nutrition information and use that as our guide.  Remember, at least when it comes to weight management, it’s a balance of calories in versus calories out. Read the label. Don’t assume that the food is healthier because you bought it from a food store. Ask to see the nutrition information or look for the label on the package. The good news is healthy foods can come from anywhere we choose to shop or eat! When we have all of the right information, we can make a healthy decision.

Keep in mind that healthy eating is just one side of the equation. We also need to move more, because moving more means living more!

References:

  1. Lee, WJ., et al. You taste what you see: Do organic labels bias perception? Food Quality and Preference. 2013;29(1):33-39.
  2. Chandon and Wansink. The Biasing Health Halos of Fast Food Restaurant Health Claims. Lower calorie estimates and higher side-dish consumption intentions. Journal of Consumer Research. 2007; 34(3): 301-314.