What is the Health Halo Effect? In this post, I’ll introduce you to this common nutrition and wellness phenomenon and share some examples you may have already experienced in your daily life!
Have you ever assumed a product was the “healthier” choice because it was labelled low-fat? Or gluten-free? Or all-natural? No judgement, I have too. This automatic assumption that something is healthy, even thought there may not be any evidence to prove it is called the Health Halo Effect. Keep reading to learn more about what exactly it is and examples you may have already encountered yourself.
What is the Health Halo Effect?
There are always new food products hitting the markets these days. As the health, wellness and nutrition worlds progress, more brands are trying to keep up with the trends and what consumers are looking for.
Sometimes, as a result of marketing and the use of nutrition trends and buzzwords, a halo effect or sense of “goodness” is cast upon a product. In reality, the product may not actually be the health food that it’s portrayed as.
By definition, the Health Halo Effect is the perception that a particular food is good for you even when there is little or no evidence to confirm this is true.
It is when a particular food is thought to be ‘healthy’ so people happily purchase or eat this food. They do so with the belief that it’ll be good for them and that they can “eat more of it” because it’s healthy. In reality, there’s no real evidence to back this up.
Another way the health halo effect comes into play is that the specific buzzword or so-called benefit distracts you from not-so-nutritious aspects of a product. Just because a granola bar contains probiotics doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best choice for you. It could be coated in chocolate or be quite high in sugar, low in fibre, or not really offering much else nutrition-wise. But because consumers see the word “probiotics” they automatically think of it as healthy.
This health halo isn’t necessarily deliberate or created with the intention to deceive. Really, it’s a misconception made as a result of the perceptions we have as a society about certain foods. Our increasing tendency to buy into this kind of stuff is now dubbed the health halo effect.
Examples of the Health Halo Effect in Food Labelling:
Think about the 90’s, a.k.a the “low fat 90’s”, where everyone was convinced fat was bad and should be avoided. Still to this day I’ve heard people refer to a product and say “well it’s low fat so it must be healthier!”.
Fat provides flavour. Many times when fat is removed from a product, salt or sugar is added to make up for the loss of flavour. Think of fat-free jello or fat-free pudding. They’re still desserts offering little value nutrition-wise, they’re just lower in fat.
For a while there it was just a general assumption that if you bought it from the gluten-free aisle at the grocery store, it was a healthier choice. In reality, a gluten-free donut is still a donut.
However, if you are someone with celiac disease, eating gluten-free foods is a healthier choice. In the case of celiac, gluten can damage the lining of the small intestine. This affects the ability to absorb nutrients from food, thus negatively impacting one’s health. So for a celiac patient, gluten-free foods are healthier. For the population of people who tolerate gluten, most gluten-free alternatives are not.
I’ll have to do an entire blog post on organic vs. conventional foods, but to keep things simple, organic Mac n’ cheese is still Mac n’ cheese. Organic candy is still candy, and eating it in excess – just like conventional sugar – isn’t good for us. Please keep in mind that the term ‘organic’ is not synonymous with ‘healthy’.
French fries or potato chips could be all-natural (potatoes, oil, salt… all natural things). However, if they’re still deep-fried, they’re still French fries and potato chips. I’m all about not having food rules so I’m not demonizing French fries (I love them!). I just don’t want you to get tricked in to thinking a product is much healthier than traditional French fries or potato chips when it frankly is not.
This one drives me a little bit bonkers, I won’t lie. When a recipe or product is labelled refined sugar-free, it means that maple syrup, honey, coconut sugar or another more natural sugar was used. Sure, this sounds healthy, but sugar is ultimately sugar. Whether it’s refined, natural or not. If you want to hear more on that, listen to my podcast, the No BS Nutrition Podcast episode about refined vs. natural sugars.
The Bottom Line:
I didn’t introduce you to the Health Halo Effect to scare you away from foods you might truly be enjoying. I wanted to introduce this topic to encourage you to make food choices based on things other than fancy marketing and buzzwords.
The factors that play into your food choices don’t always have to be the same. Some days you may want to eat the date-sweetened cookies and others the butter-sugar-flour cookies. Maybe you genuinely enjoy the saltiness and crunch of the “all-natural” veggie chips.
Just be careful not to fall into the mindset of elevating one type of food while demonizing another. This is a common diet culture tactic. Remember that all foods can fit, and there is so much to consider (beyond labels, too) when making your food choices.
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