Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD
The health halo effect is a marketing tactic used by companies to create the perception that their products are healthier than they actually are. It is everywhere, from the packaging of food products to celebrity endorsements of various supplements and diets.
The health and wellness industry is massively profitable, with more and more consumers seeking out products that promise to improve their health and help them lead a better life. Or are desperate to attain their “perfect body.”
But with this increased demand comes a flood of products marketed as “healthy” or “good for you,” often with little to no scientific evidence to back up these claims. This is where the health halo effect comes in.
While this tactic may seem harmless, it has the potential to mislead consumers and even harm their health in the long run.
In this blog post, we will explore the health halo effect in more detail, including what it is, how it works, and its potential for harm. We will also provide tips for avoiding falling prey to this marketing tactic and becoming a more informed consumer. So, let’s dive in and take a closer look at the health halo effect.
Definition of the Health Halo Effect
The Health Halo Effect may be a new concept to many people. It is a subset of the larger “halo effect” seen in various marketing techniques. We’ll stick to the food and nutrition aspects for our purposes here.
Explanation of the Concept
A food acquires a health halo when people perceive it as healthy or believe it possesses health or wellness benefits, even in the absence of supporting evidence.
This presents in various ways. The most common tactic that I see is a statement of fact about some aspect of the food, followed by the assertion that this food is healthier than other similar foods. We’ve seen this fairly recently with quinoa, blueberries, acai, kale, and goji berries.
This has always been my problem with “superfoods.” This isn’t a real thing. Yes, the foods included on these made-up lists of superfoods are generally healthful. However, they imply a tiered system that, among even fruits and vegetables, certain ones are better than others.
What we then see is that people consume only those foods, further reducing variety in their diet and leading to longer-term health problems. There is no one food that can provide everything that you need to be a healthy person.
Tansy Boggon of Joyful Eating in New Zealand puts it beautifully:
No food is categorically ‘healthy’. The quantity of said food, the entire diet an individual consumes, health conditions, medications and activity level all need to be factored into how much of a particular food is ‘healthy’.
So, for example, a product that gives the perception of being healthy because it is high in fibre or protein may not necessarily be a ‘healthier’ choice if the diet is already adequate in fibre and protein. Yes, fibre and protein are, generally speaking, ‘good’ for you, but the claim on a food label doesn’t unequivocally mean that the product is ‘healthy’ for you.
Furthermore, health claims and labeling can distract you from not-so-nutritious aspects of a product or discourage you from seeking further nutritional information—even checking out the nutrition information panel or ingredients.Tansy Boggon
How a Health Halo Affects Consumer Behavior
The Health Halo Effect can make consumers feel confident in food choices that may or may not make sense.
Kale is “healthy,” while iceberg lettuce isn’t. The standard complaint is that the lettuce is “all water.” When in fact, both foods contain water, fiber, various micronutrients, and phytochemicals.
Similarly, social media recommendations often advise people to avoid russet potatoes and choose sweet potatoes instead. However, their fiber and starch content is almost identical, with the russet potato having a lot of potassium and the sweet potato having a lot of beta-carotene.
However, when a person is at the grocery store, trying to figure out what to make for dinner, or worried about their health, a superfood list gives them a sense of “doing good.”
A buzzy new-to-you food can be exciting and make you overbuy a product you may not even like. And it can drive up prices, leading to problems in the region the food is from and driving up costs. Don’t let social media “scientists” make your food decisions for you.
How Companies Use Health Halos as a Marketing Technique
But it’s not just specific foods or ingredients. A lot of food companies employ the health halo as a highly targeted and intentional marketing technique.
Look at the public perception of Subway vs. Mcdonald’s. If you ask any group of people to list “healthy” fast food, I can almost guarantee the first and most frequent answer would be Subway. And the most “unhealthy” fast food will always include Mcdonald’s.
We have Jared and Morgan Spurlock to thank for that.
However, because of Subway’s halo, consumers generally opt for sodas, chips, and cookies to along with their salad and end up taking in more fat and sugar than they would have at Mcdonald’s!
One study even found that people were more likely to eat more later in the day after eating at Subway because they “earned it.”
Adding “low fat,” “no added sugar,” “organic,” or “all-natural” on a food label tends to make people choose those products over their competitors. However, a fried potato chip is a fried potato chip, regardless of whether or not the potatoes are organic foods.
Marketers often employ imagery to actively influence shoppers, creating a belief that their product surpasses a similar one in quality or superiority. Who doesn’t prefer a picture of a cow in a nice green pasture on their milk?
Examples of the Health Halo Effect
Sometimes a healthful food is over-hyped and develops a halo. Other times, food manufacturers falsely label a product with a health-promoting halo, even when it lacks any inherent health benefits.
Still, other times, healthy components are used as a vehicle for other foods that may cause harm to a person’s health.
Below I’ll list only some of the health halos that are common in the grocery store.
A great example is granola; often considered a healthy food because it contains oatmeal and nuts. However, it is often loaded with excessive amounts of sugar that the consumer is not aware of. Many protein bars follow this same MO.
Food companies frequently label veggie straws or vegetable chips as healthier alternatives to plain old potato chips. Vegetable chips are often just different starchy vegetables. These foods are perfectly fine to include in a balanced diet.
However, people often consume veggie straws or vegetable chips in larger quantities under the assumption that “they’re just vegetables.
Yogurt is another area that often sees a halo. Many people believe that a certain green packaged yogurt has more or different probiotics than other yogurts and is thus healthier. The truth is all yogurt is “probiotic yogurt.” You don’t need the more expensive name brand with the celebrity endorser.
Halo Top “ice cream” has the term halo right there in the name!
Gluten-free XYZ – the abundance of gluten-free products is great for those with Celiac disease. Those that suffer from this condition can now eat more of the foods they are used to.
However, these products also generally contain more sodium and fat than their more traditional counterparts, making them potentially harmful to the health of some individuals.
Health Claims on Packages
There are a number of claims on packages that imply that the product inside is better than the alternative. Here is a non-exhaustive list of health claims strategically crafted to entice you into choosing them over their counterparts. They do not necessarily convey the actual healthfulness of the product.
- low fat (low-fat versions tend to have more sugar and/or sodium than the original)
- organic (the term organic is actually federally regulated, but it does NOT indicate the nutrient content of the product)
- all-natural (“natural” sugar is still sugar)
- low sodium (usually contain more fat than the original)
- trans-fat-free (all food manufacturers are required to remove trans fat, and their product is no different than the next one).
In addition to the health claims, marketers frequently employ images of happy people, contented cows, vibrant green grass, and vivid blue skies to create the impression that the product is more natural and, consequently, healthier than its competitors.
Use of Buzzwords
Buzzwords get passed around because they are fun. They are usually catchy terms that are easy to remember and have been curated to make you feel a specific way about a particular product, brand, or person. Some examples include:
- plant-based (this phrase is quite literally meaningless, no one can even agree on what it means)
- Pro and prebiotics – often added (though not regulated) to products that may essentially be candy bars and cookies.
- Fortified (with what? Did it need to be fortified?)
- High-protein (why do you need more protein? Protein intake higher than your needs doesn’t do much for you)
Gosh, there are so many it’s hard to keep up! And now, it’s not just traditional celebrities. Companies often pay individuals with significant social media followings to endorse specific products. A couple of examples include:
- Jamie Lee Curtis and Activia
- Taylor Swift and Diet Coke
- Gwyneth Paltrow and literally anything she recommends
- The Kardashian family and various diet teas
- Jennifer Aniston and Vitamin Water
- Chrissy Teigen and Blue Apron
- Oprah and Weight Watchers
- Dr. Oz and Green Coffee Bean Extract (or anything else he says…)
Misleading Serving Sizes
A more recent marketing tactic to make their products appear healthier is to reduce the serving size. Basically, food companies will shrink their portion sizes so that each serving can meet the FDA requirements for front-of-label health claims.
This is such a sneaky and backhanded way of making customers think their product has improved or is now healthier without changing a single thing!
Luckily, laws are starting to catch up, and serving sizes will have to be revamped to reflect what a normal portion size would look like, whatever “normal” means.
Potential for Harm
There are a few different ways that a health halo can cause harm. We’ll discuss them briefly below.
False Claims of Health Benefits
Attributing health benefits to a food that is either untrue or exaggerated can lead individuals to postpone seeking appropriate medical care for genuine conditions. The appeal to nature fallacy is a common tactic in the wellness space.
It’s genius, really, although a bit evil as well. If you can convince people that medicine is wrong, dangerous, or ineffective, you can then sell them the alternative.
As the general public becomes familiar with an ingredient and it becomes popularly maligned, food companies will often simply list the ingredient under a different name.
So sugar becomes agave syrup, blackstrap molasses, fruit juice or fruit juice concentrate, honey, etc.
Words such as malt, bulgur, or farina may conceal the presence of gluten.
This may not matter to most of us, but someone with a medical reason to reduce sugar or eliminate gluten may erroneously pick a product containing these ingredients and never realize they are eating foods that may make their condition more difficult to manage.
Negative Impact on Overall Health and Wellness
The use of terms like organic, natural, no artificial colors, and more makes the consumer draw conclusions that the product is healthier without the food manufacturer ever having to make a claim.
Remember that organic sugar and honey are still sugar. Saturated fat is as natural as unsaturated fat. These words mean absolutely nothing in reality but a lot to many individuals.
As a result, individuals may overeat some nutrients and undereat others.
How to Avoid the Health Halo Effect
Similar to our conversation on nutrition red flags, avoiding the health halo effect requires you to separate yourself from a reflexive emotional response and think critically about the claims you are reading or hearing about.
Has every package started using the same word or phrase? Are there words where they don’t make sense, such as gluten-free potato chips? Is their entire marketing tactic a pretty celebrity holding a bottle?
Tips for Reading Food Labels
When reading food labels, the main thing is to turn the package around and look at the nutrition facts. It’s much more difficult to hide things there, though not impossible.
If you need to carb count to manage diabetes, look at the total carbohydrates. If you have high cholesterol, look at the saturated fat, unsaturated fat, and fiber content. If your blood pressure is high, evaluate the sodium content.
Obviously, these are oversimplified examples, but hopefully, they are making my point. The front of the label doesn’t help you individualize your needs.
Researching Ingredients and Their Health Benefits
When a person or a brand makes a claim about the health benefits of a product, look for sources not linked to that entity for validation.
You may be dealing with a health halo if you hear the same 2-3 sound bites over and over again but with no idea where the original claim came from. For instance, 10,000 steps per day or 8 glasses of water per day.
Google Scholar and Pub Med are great resources to see if there is any scientific basis for a claim. You can read the sources that a website is giving you yourself to see if you can draw the same conclusion.
In conclusion, the health halo effect is a powerful marketing tool that can have significant consequences for consumers’ health and wellness. By creating a perception that certain products are healthier than they actually are, companies can mislead consumers and even put their health at risk.
However, by being aware of the health halo effect and taking steps to become more informed consumers, we can protect ourselves and make healthier choices.
This includes paying close attention to product labels, researching ingredients and their health benefits, and seeking out trusted sources of information.
Ultimately, the responsibility falls on both companies and consumers to ensure that products marketed as “healthy” or “good for you” are actually beneficial to our health.
By working together, we can create a more honest and transparent marketplace that prioritizes the health and wellness of consumers above all else.
The perception that certain foods are beneficial for health, despite lacking substantial evidence to support such claims.
This marketing technique appeals to a person’s desire to achieve a specific health goal. The marketer will use words and imagery to imply that their product is good for you, despite no research to back their claims.
People often fall this marketing tactic because they have “tried everything else,” they feel desperate, or the product introduced them to a problem then didn’t know they had in the first place.
Health halos rely on emotions and knee-jerk reactions rather than reasonable thought.
Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD is a registered dietitian, mom, wife, and vegetarian in North Texas. She has dedicated Dietitian Jenn to be a source of information, ideas, and inspiration for people like her, vegetarians that live with people with different dietary beliefs and/or needs in a multivore household.