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  • Writer's pictureDr. Sarah Penney, ND, MSc

The Healthy Halo Effect: Dont Believe Everything You Think

Does buying a cookie that is advertised to contain omega 3 fats or candy that claims to be all-natural make you feel better about indulgent choices you may not otherwise make? Being only human I can catch myself thinking this way sometimes, but being a Naturopath I remember to look at labels and often end up laughing to myself awkwardly in the health food store. This healthy halo effect I am referring to is an invaluable element that many food and beverage companies are striving to capture right now, no matter the level of deception.

The underlying concept that I am referring to is that down to every detail of packaging color and wording, advertising can make us think a product is good for us and increase our likelihood of purchasing while in fact it may be the opposite. This has been going on for years with foods labeled fat-free, cholesterol free, whole wheat or sugar free, and has recently seen a wave of new players from the organic and all natural field. Many of the terms you might see on product packaging are major buzz-words, specifically designed to trigger certain subconscious thoughts in our minds. For example, research has demonstrated that adding the word 'organic' to packaged products like chips, cookies and muffins can make participants believe they are getting food that is more nutritious, lower in fat and even tasted better when really they were tasting and viewing the same product (1). You might find a few of my favorite examples when it comes to foods glowing with the healthy halo in your cupboard. Any kind of 'nutrient enhanced' or 'vitamin' water is usually one that makes me shake my head - you can easily get 8 tsp of sugar in many of these drinks, making it's health impact differ significantly from that of any 'plain' water regardless of any vitamins added. Gummy vitamins are generally another 'health' product that have very little value in my books - the majority have such low nutrient levels that you are really just eating gummy bears in the morning. Hopping back over to the grocery aisle, foods like salad dressing or cookies glowingly labeled low-fat are often compensating by loading up on the sugar to add some taste. When you start critically thinking about the claims on your favorite packaged foods, you might find they are not telling the whole truth. Your very best defense against this health halo effect is to spend time reading labels when you choose products. I never discourage a portion controlled treat now and then by all means, but when patients THINK they are choosing something healthy, I hate to see them deceived by sneaky advertising. - Dr. Sarah Penney, ND, MSc REFERENCES

1. Wan-chen, J.L., Shimizu, Mitsuru, Kniffin, K.M., & Wansink, B. (2013). You taste what you see: Do organic labels bias taste perceptions? Food Quality and Preference, 29(1): 33-39.

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