Before you pat yourself on the back for placing a box of granola over cereal in your grocery cart, stop and consider if there's a health halo floating over that sugar-packed, fiber-free breakfast cereal featuring a fit-looking model on the front of the box.
Confused by food marketing that may be influencing your healthy food choices? Us too. Thanks to a psychological effect called the "health halo," it may be difficult to distinguish between more nutritious options and packaged foods with creative ad campaigns and big marketing budgets that aim to convince you that their products are healthy.
The health halo
"The health halo effect is an phenomenon in which a food or food company is perceived as healthy based on one claim," Natalie Allen, clinical faculty member of the Biomedical Sciences Department at Missouri State University and team dietician for the university's athletic teams, said via email.
The health halo is evident when you choose an organic pack of cookies over conventional Oreos, purchase locally raised steaks over steaks shipped from another region or opt for the low-cal packaged cupcakes and skip the bakery.
"Consumers overestimate the healthfulness of a food item based on [one] claim," Allen said, causing grocery shoppers and diners to overlook other nutritional facts or information about the product they want to buy that's not necessarily healthy.
Ever order off a restaurant's diet menu, gluten-free menu or vegetarian options because you thought that category would be healthier?
"The halo effect also refers to restaurants, as good marketing and PR can sway consumers," Allen said.
Think about it: Was that gluten-free pasta in organic tomato sauce really a better choice than a whole fish served with veggies?
Just like hashtags and search terms on the internet may lead you toward clicking on an article or picture, certain keywords in food branding may subconsciously guide your food choices under the health halo.
"A danger I see with my clients is they base food choices on one idea and do not look at the food as a whole," Allen said. "People may see a 'lite' dessert and think it's healthy, when it still could contain hundreds of calories. Sometimes, people also become concerned with terms like 'locally grown,' 'organic' and 'natural.' These terms are not well-regulated and can be misleading."
"Low fat" is a known buzzword in health food marketing, but when the fat is removed from a tasty food like cookies or chips, the flavor has to come another source. Salt and sugar are primary suspects.
Candice Seti, a licensed clinical psychologist and nutrition coach in San Diego, points to the low-fat era of the '80s and '90s as a prime example of the health halo effect. "At that point, basically anything that had a big low-fat claim on the box was considered healthy," Seti said in an interview. "So people hyper focus on this one area (low fat) to the exclusion of everything else: ingredients, sodium, nutrients, etcetera."
Foods not even marketed as healthy, but perhaps naturally low in fat because they're not fried and have not had the fat removed, still can fall under the health halo. Registered dietitian Keri Glassman said she avoids foods like pretzels, which can be fat-free but are still made with processed carbs, which contain virtually no nutrients.
"They are no different than eating a bowl of jelly beans," Glassman said. "They have no fiber, no protein and no healthy fats to keep you satisfied or add health benefits to the calories you're consuming."
Beyond the low-fat moniker, Seti said to be aware of brand names you associate with being healthy, or healthy-looking packaging that can blind you to what's actually inside the package. Hot dogs made with grass-fed, organic beef are still hot dogs.
"Simply marketing a brand as providing products for healthy people can lead people to assume that its products are healthy without focusing on the facts," Seti said.
Other misleading words
Not everything has to bear a misleading "healthy" or "diet-friendly" label on it to fall under the health halo. Some generic products, like whole wheat bread, pasta or other processed carbohydrates may stand out to you as healthier, just because of the whole wheat moniker.
"Whole wheat bread has a health halo around it because it's been termed 'whole wheat,'" registered dietitian Daphne Olivier said by email. "However, the grain [in the bread] is highly heated in the process of turning the wheat berry into flour. This removes the natural vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that would naturally be found in the wheat."
Olivier added that typical store-bought whole wheat bread has three to four times more ingredients than what you actually need to make homemade bread (yeast, sugar, flour, salt) in order to preserve the shelf life and maintain freshness.
While purchasing whole wheat bread or pasta may be slightly more healthful than the white flour counterparts (compare the nutrition facts to confirm), don't fool yourself into thinking that grilled cheese on whole wheat bread is so superior to its Wonder Bread counterpart.
The best way to avoid the health halo? Read.
"Be educated, and remember: Not everything on the internet is true, especially about food and nutrition," Allen said.
Awareness about the health halo, and your susceptibility to it, can also help. "It is important to be aware of this phenomenon as a means to keep yourself in check and prevent this from happening to you," Seti said. "The best way to avoid it is to defer to your own knowledge and judgment."
Boost your judgment by learning to ignore arbitrary packaging claims like "all natural" or "good for you" or most suspiciously, "healthy," and know how to review an ingredient list for whole ingredients and ingredients you recognize.
"Scan the nutrition panel and aim to avoid foods with trans fats [and] foods that are high in sugar or sodium," Seti said. "Aim for foods that are high in protein and fiber."
Seti said it's always wise to consult a doctor for advice specific to your body, diet and lifestyle when making major nutritional choices.