The “Health Halo” Effect

The “health halo” effect has permeated our food choices for years, and the rise of the “wellness” industry has exacerbated this. For many of us, it’s something we have internalised for years, as a by-product of marketing, societal norms and you guessed it – Instagram. We talk about demonising food now (for good reason!), and the negative impacts that can have on eating behaviours, But, in doing so, we have neglected its equally as problematic cousin – the health halo.

What is the “Health Halo” Effect?

To fully understand just how much this permeates our nutrition and eating behaviour, it is hugely advantageous to first understand what the hell it is. The “Health Halo” effect is a cognitive bias whereby we perceive a product to be healthy for us, based on our beliefs about its nutritional content (Stoltze et al., 2021). These beliefs don’t even need to be true. Once we think it’s good for us based on how its marketed, we generally don’t tend to critically think about products. After all, why would a company mislead us so that they can mark up the prices on their items?

Food marketing is rampant with health-halos and you don’t have to look beyond your own cupboards to see products are literally plastered in them.

Examples of health-halos include:

  • Low calorie
  • Low in sodium
  • No added sugar
  • High in vitamin X
  • Organic
  • High protein
  • High fibre
  • Plant-based/vegan
  • Low fat
  • Diet-blend
  • No artificial sweeteners
  • Women’s blend (my all-time most rage-inducing health halo)

(Hall et al., 2020, Fernan, Schuldt & Niederdeppe, 2017, Andrews, Burton and Netemeyer, 2000).

Now, before you cancel me, I’m not saying that plant-based/vegan or any of these labels are wrong, or that there is anything wrong with choosing to eat a certain way. Of course we should eat fibre, less processed foods etc. READ THAT AGAIN before you’re in my DMs. I am referencing these claims from purely a food labelling/marketing perspective.

How Does This Work In Practice?

Enter the science. The biggest issue with the health halo isn’t that we believe in the individual claim. Rather, it’s the fact that it has been shown repeatedly that we ascribe a status of “healthy” to a food, once we believe one of the nutritional claims on a product. In literature, it has been repeatedly shown that once we believe in a health halo, we tend to believe a product has other health-promoting properties, even if this isn’t stated on the product, or is even remotely true (Schuldt, Muller & Schwarz, 2012, Hall et al., 2020, Choi et al., 2015).

We are going to delve into some really interesting studies because I am post-19 hour shift and sleep is for non-healthcare workers. Perhaps the one of most interest to us fitfam is this study by Fernan et al., published in 2017. Fernan et al. tested this “health halo” phenomenon in the context of the almighty protein bar. Participants were asked several questions about the nutritional and health status of three different fictitious bars.

The study had seven (!!) hypotheses:

  1. A bar labelled “protein” will be perceived as high protein content.
  2. Participants will think a bar labelled “protein” will also be perceived healthier overall.
  3. Participants think a bar labelled “protein” will have more protein in it than one without this label.
  4. Participants think a bar labelled “protein” will be healthier than one without this label.
  5. Participants think a bar with “protein” in the name will contain more protein than a bar with “protein” on the label.
  6. Participants think a bar with “protein” in the name will be healthier than a bar with “protein” on the label.
  7. Using a “traffic light” labelling will influence participants perception of health status of a food more so than one without a label.

Now, if you ask me, these hypotheses are a bit too similar, and very confusingly worded. Also, SEVEN hypotheses? Ain’t nobody got time to test all of them.

But, that aside, the findings were super interesting.

H1, H3 and H4 were all supported by the data. Good, we can be forgiven for thinking a bar that says “high protein” will actually contain protein. Interestingly, we also think a “protein” bar will be better for us, in the absence of any other evidence other than the fact the label says “protein”. This is very interesting, and whilst we can nitpick around the subjectivity of “healthy” and what that means, the findings are a useful thinking point on how we view food.

Indeed, you can see how this study has translated form the lab into our shops. You only have to look on your local supermarket shelves to see products emblazoned with “high protein”. There is a high-protein everything available now, and it costs four times the price of the normal product.

The Kicker

Here comes the kicker – most health halos aren’t actually true. Products with “added protein”, do indeed have protein added. That is not a lie. However, thinks like protein breakfast cereals, protein crisps etc. rarely have sufficient protein added to make a difference than its generic counterpart. Often, it’s an extra gram or two of protein, which is pretty much inconsequential for muscle-protein synthesis.

A serving of protein is typically 20-35g of a complete protein source, with enough leucine to stimulate muscle-protein synthesis (Morton, McGlory and Phillips, 2015). It is highly unlikely your protein Guinness will help you hit this threshold singe-handedly (a girl can dream).

And, that’s just one of the main players in nutrition marketing at the minute. There are a lot of sinister undercurrents – companies highlighting particular claims to hide the fact that there are negative nutritional properties in certain foods (Choi et al., 2013). For example, consider my local chipper once advertised a smoked cod and chips as low sugar. Stunning! Omg, thank you so much. What they didn’t mention was there was enough trans fat in there to send me straight for a bypass and enough vinegar to blister off a layer of my tastebuds (delicious).

Shouldn’t This Be Illegal?

Probably.

Many of these products are carefully marketed around advertising and marketing guidelines. In most cases, the problem is us. We are assuming that because a food says “vegan”, it automatically is less processed, or contains less sugar. This might not even be true. And, we the consumer have inferred this. The company haven’t actually claimed any of those things!

However, I also think you shouldn’t need a masters in nutrition to figure out if companies are bullshitting you. It is misleading and whilst there is a responsibility as consumers to educate ourselves, for many people, we are making the best possible choices we can with what we have.

Nobody Puts Quinoa in the Corner

Another problem with this glorification of certain foods comes with its links to disordered eating. This pedestalising of foods is largely seen on Instagram “full day of eating” videos (AKA how to develop disordered eating, use code VOLUMEEATING for 2 years off your life). Assigning foods as “good” based on our perception of them is arguably just as bad as demonising them, and can be a pretty bad practice for your relationship with food (Jutel, 2005).

There is nothing inherently “better” about certain foods from a moral perspective. Of course, certain foods have more health-promoting properties, but it doesn’t mean that eating a kale salad means you deserve to be knighted.

In my opinion, we have become so focused on the harmful effects of demonising food and the importance of limiting this practice, that we have forgotten just how damaging it is to let this culture of pedestalising food fly under the radar. We are encouraged to “bulk up” our oats with courgette to add volume (I’ll never be over this, what the actual hell), add protein to literally everything and if they announced a plant-based Class A substance, people would sure as hell feel a lot more braggy on social media about their weekend antics.

Conclusions

Maybe it’s the night shift talking as a rampant fever dream, but in my opinion, health halos can be just as insidious as demonising foods. Health halos exist because it make money, and there is no money to be made from the educated consumer. Health halo research and the psychology behind it is super interesting, and it is certainly an area I am dying to plunge down the rabbit hole of.

Let me know your thoughts and feedback, always happy to chat all things nutrition and science!

References

  • Andrews, J.C., Burton, S., Netemeyer, R.G. (2000) ‘Are Some Comparative Nutrition Claims Misleading? The Role of Nutrition Knowledge, Ad Claim Type and Disclosure Conditions’, Journal of Advertising, 29(3), pp. 29-42.
  • Choi, H., Too, K., Baek, T., Reid, L.N., Macias, W. (2013) ‘Presence and effects of health and nutrition-related (HNR) claims with benefit-seeking and risk-avoidance appeals in female-orientated magazine food advertisements’, International Journal of Advertising, 32(4), pp. 587-616.
  • Choi, H., Yoo, K., Baek, T.Y., Reid, L.N., Macias, W. (2015) ‘Presence and effects of health and nutrition-related (HNR) claims with benefit-seeking and risk-avoidance appeals in female-orientated magazine food advertisements’, International Journal of Marketing, 32(4), pp. 587-616.
  • Fernan, C., Schuldt, J.P., Niederdeppe, J. (2018) ‘Health Halo Effects from Product Titles and Nutrient Content Claims in the Context of “Protein” Bars’, Health Communication, 33(12), pp. 1425-1433.
  • Hall, M.G., Lazard, A.J., Grummon, A.H., Mendel, J.R., Taillie, L.S. (2020) ‘The impact of front-of-package claims, fruit images, and health warnings on consumers’ perception of sugar-sweetened fruit drinks: Three randomized experiments’, Preventive Medicine, 132.
  • Jutel, A. (2005) ‘Weighing Health: The Moral Burden of Obesity’, Social Semiotics, 15(2), pp. 113-125.
  • Morton, R.W., McGlory, C., Phillips, S.M. (2015) ‘Nutritional interventions to augment resistance training-induced skeletal muscle hypertrophy’, Frontiers in Physiology, 1(1).
  • Schuldt, J.P., Muller, D., Schwarz, N. (2012) ‘The “Fair Trade” Effect: Health Halos From Social Ethics Claims’, Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(5), pp. 581-589.
  • Stoltze, F.M., Busey, E., Taillie, L.S., Dillman Carpentier, F.R. (2021) ‘Impact of warning labels on reducing health halo effects of nutrient claims on breakfast cereal packages: A mixed measures experiment’, Appetite, 163.

Published by Michelle Carroll

I am a qualified personal trainer and radiographer. I believe in empowering others to make better choices for their health through education. I think that the fitness industry has created a disconnect between best practices and “evidence-based” practices. I am hoping that by chronicling my experience as a healthcare professional and my education as a fitness professional I can assist others on the path to bettering themselves.

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