Have you ever told yourself that it's OK to eat the broken cookies because all the calories have spilled out? At some point, many of us have convinced ourselves of something silly like that. We know it's not true, but somehow it takes away some of the guilt of eating a cookie or two.
But sometimes, we think a food is healthy simply because of the marketing claims. That's called the "health halo effect." Say, for example, people are asked to taste two identical foods, but they're told that one is organic and one isn't. They'll often say the "organic" one tastes better because they assume that organic food is of better quality.
It's the same logic when someone orders a salad because they think it's a healthy menu choice, no matter what's on it. The word "salad" creates a health halo effect, even if the salad is loaded with bacon, cheese, eggs and a high-calorie, high-fat dressing. There's lettuce under all that, so it must be healthy, right?
The salad is a fairly obvious example. Of course, all the additions lessen the healthiness of the salad, and most people recognize that. But, it's not individual dishes that cause the most problems. It's the marketing claims that create confusion and feed into people's desire to eat healthy while eating the foods they most enjoy.
Eating low-fat was my first experience with marketing and the health halo effect, even if the term wasn't around back in the late '80s when low fat was the biggest dieting rule. My friends and I would eat entire chocolate cakes that were virtually fat-free, but they were full of sugar and chemicals. We ate huge bagels, dry — no butter or cream cheese for us. We loaded up on white flour while living by one simple rule: Fat causes fat. Fat-free cookies and cakes plus any kind of white bread were, in our minds, healthy.
As the Guardian points out, the "halo effect gives us license to eat more than we otherwise would because we feel less guilty if a product is promoted as low in fat or calories." But, it's not just claims of fat and calories that can create a halo effect. Labels like "organic" and "non-GMO" can also make foods seem healthier than they are.
Here are some terms that have their roots in something good, but can also be associated with the health halo effect.
Let's start with one that is probably the most confusing. Yes, there are many benefits to eating organic for human health and the health of the planet. Organic foods have fewer pesticides. Organic animal products have fewer antibiotics and hormones. They don't contain GMOs. But, just because a food is organic, doesn't mean it's healthy. There is organic junk food: cookies, candy, sugary breakfast cereals, ice cream and more. You can't eat as much of these foods as you want and think it's fine because the USDA has declared them organic, but they still need to be eaten in moderation.
The non-GMO label is quickly growing. People want to know what's in the food they're eating, especially genetically modified ingredients. However, a non-GMO label is no guarantee of a healthy food; it's only a guarantee that a food is not made with GMO ingredients. Just like with organics, there is plenty of non-GMO junk food. Consider the five non-GMO foods that I liked from the Natural Products Expo a couple of years ago: battered onion rings, cookies, tortilla chips, cookie dough and peanut-butter coated popcorn. They are all snack foods that could be considered junk food.
NPR reports that savvy companies are noticing the demand for non-GMO foods and chasing the profits these foods are bringing in. In fact, sales of non-GMO foods are starting to surpass sales of organic foods. Considering the fact that so many non-GMO foods are processed snack foods, it looks like the health halo effect is strong here.
There is little regulation about what the word "natural" means when it comes to labeling and marketing food. The confusion this causes leads to lawsuits when people find out that the "natural" food they've been eating is made with ingredients they wouldn't personally consider natural, like when two mothers sued General Mills because the Nature Valley Granola Bars they were feeding their children didn't meet their personal natural standards.
When it comes to the word natural, nothing seems to have more of a health halo effect surrounding it than natural sugar. Consumers are quick to choose a product that's made with cane sugar, agave or honey instead of high fructose corn syrup (I'll admit I'm one of them) because it seems healthier. And, while HFCS may have its issues, sugar certainly does, too. When a company like Hershey takes the HFCS out of its product and replaces it with sugar, it may be a slightly healthier ingredient, but it doesn't magically make a chocolate bar healthy.
This is a marketing term you see often on eggs, and it means nothing. The eggs or other foods with this term can still be from chickens that are kept on factory farms in conditions that are as far from a traditional farm as possible.
The word "superfood" is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. According to Pevention, any food can be labeled a superfood. Foods that contain antioxidants are often labeled superfoods, but many, many foods have antioxidants, not just a few so-called superfoods. Take acai berries that grow in Central and South America, for example. They are no more super than the berries that are local to most regions in the United States like blueberries or raspberries, but they are marketed as a superfood. Many people will choose foods that contain acai, and along with that they choose a higher price and a food that's had to travel far — all because of the halo of health surrounding them.
Organic foods, non-GMO foods, natural foods, real farm fresh foods, and foods with high nutrition values are good things — especially when they are whole foods and not processed. But, just because a food is labeled with these words doesn't mean it's a health food. Beware of just looking at labels; they can be misleading.