There is no doubt that we are living in an information-saturated food environment filled with a never-ending list of claims about low-fat, natural, organic, gluten-free, low-sugar, no artificial flavours and colours, and so on, products.
At times, it can feel like you are navigating a maze instead of your local grocery store.
Despite the amazing advances that have been made in nutrition research, it appears that our society has taken a turn to fixating on single nutrients and flashy buzzwords, rather than focusing on healthy diet patterns as a whole.
This is what we call health halos!
What are Health Halos?
Health halos are essentially marketing tactics that sway consumers into believing a food product is healthier due to one or more of its’ “healthy” attributes. (1)
Health halos lead to inference making, a process where consumers “...use information about one attribute to infer information about another attribute that is either unknown or not readily apparent.” (2).
We see this A LOT when we go grocery shopping, where a quick glance at a front-of-package claim often draws our attention to which product we should choose with the assumption that this ONE CLAIM makes the WHOLE product healthier for us!
For example, when we see products that are “low in fat”, we sometimes assume that it is low in calories too...however, this may not always be the case! (3)
Health halos can also extend beyond “health related claims” and include the labels on how the product was grown or sourced, like organic, natural, or fair trade.
In fact, in a study examining claims on chocolate, the authors found that when chocolate was presented with a “fair-trade” label, consumers inferred that it was lower in calories too. (4) This finding is surprising given that fair trade labels describe products that are “produced in a socially and economically fair, and environmental responsible manner.” (5) In other words, it has nothing to do with the “healthfulness” of the product. (6)
To better understand how we became so obsessed with these single-nutrient claims, buzzwords, or health halos, we need to go back to the 1950s.
A Quick History of Health Halos
During the 20th century, North America experienced an extreme shift in health and disease. In the first half of the 20th century, scientific advances such as immunization against smallpox and diphtheria, milk pasteurization to destroy harmful bacteria, chlorination to disinfect drinking water, and the discovery of penicillin led to more effective treatments and prevention of infectious diseases. (7)
However, what became more apparent during the 1950s was the growing concern of chronic diseases, like diseases of the circulatory system. In fact, in 1950 the rate of death from circulatory system diseases like heart disease and stroke in Canada accounted for 1,000 deaths per 100,000 men per year, and 800 deaths per 100,000 women per year. (7)
In response to these growing concerns, many epidemiological studies including the Framingham study and Ancel Keys’ Seven Countries study ensued. From these longitudinal and comparison studies that examined the diets of different countries and population groups, it was suggested that diets high in fat, specifically saturated fats and dietary cholesterol, may increase the incidences of cardiovascular disease. Thus was coined, the diet-heart hypothesis. (8)
Indeed, these studies and low-fat messaging continue to have a huge impact on the nutrition world today - just look to Canada’s 2019 Food Guide, which recommends that Canadians select “foods that contain mostly unsaturated fat [and that these foods] should replace foods that contain mostly saturated fat.” (10)
In response to the low-fat messaging that was introduced to dietary guidelines in the 1980s, the food industry began to develop products lower in fat, and promoting them as such.
Ironically, many of these “low fat” products became high in other ingredients, like sugar and salt, in order to make the products still palatable. Unfortunately, as we have come to learn, processed foods with high amounts of sugar and salt undermine healthy eating, and can have their own health consequences when eaten in excess (e.g., type II diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.). (11,12)
And so forth came the “fear of fat” and the dichotomous thinking of “good food” - “bad food”, where consumers began to associate low fat products as healthy and low in calories. In other words - giving them a “health halo”.
That was until Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution book re-appeared on the scene in the early 1990s (I say “re-appeared” because the book was actually published in 1972, but didn’t gain traction until the 90s) and proposed an alternative hypothesis to the low fat diet; that fat wasn’t the issue, it was carbs. Furthermore, Dr. Atkins suggested that people should eat as much fat and protein as they wanted, as long as they restricted any and all carbohydrates. (11)
The new threat, carbs, resulted in the food industry responding by marketing “low carb” claims. However, this claim on carbohydrates, produced damaging effects, including people eliminating entire food groups from their diet like vegetables, fruit, and grain products, and missing out on essential nutrients like fibre, thiamin, folate, vitamin A, E, B, magnesium, and potassium. (11)
Enter into the 2000s and we see a plethora of new health halo claims in response to growing nutrition research. You may remember a time during the late 2000s to early 2010s when gluten-free became huge...or even more recently, in the past year or two, more and more plant-based claims have been slapped onto our products.
This is not to say that all health claims ARE THE ENEMY! In fact, they can help consumers who may have celiac disease, who want to eat more plant-based, or are maybe looking for better alternatives.
However, when we give the food industry the power to run with this reductionist view of the “almighty single nutrient and its powerful health benefits” it produces less healthy and less nutrient dense products. (11)
Those gluten-free products? They usually aren’t fortified with vitamins and minerals that are typically found in other grain products. Additionally, to make them more palatable, sugar and salt are sometimes added.
Same can be said for some plant-based products. In the past couple years, plant-based burgers have taken the grocery shelves by storm. Despite giving our veggie friends a new cook-out option, they are not any healthier than meat burgers. They are both processed and high in saturated fat and sodium. (13)
In the end, health halos confuse people into thinking that a product is healthier, and steers them away from healthy diet patterns. (11)
So how can we spot health halos and not fall victim to these buzzword claims?
Your Guide to Navigating Health Halos
So you walk into your local grocery store and grab a box of cereal…9 out of 10 times, it is sporting a “Made with Whole Grains” claim.
No doubt - whole grains are good for us! They provide us with essential nutrients like fibre, protein, B vitamins, iron, zinc, magnesium, and antioxidants. More importantly, when you eat foods higher in fibre, like whole grains, you can help lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, colon cancer, and type 2 diabetes. (14)
You notice on the box that it is made with real honey and it is *naturally flavoured*!
Best of all it claims that oat fibre helps lower cholesterol and in the fine print states that consuming one serving or ¾ cups of this cereal will provide 25% of the daily amount of fibre shown to help lower cholesterol.
All sounds great.
But before you toss the box of cereal into your chart, you need to do a full assessment and look at the Nutrition Facts Table and Ingredients List.
The Nutrition Facts Table
Continuing with our cereal example, you’ll notice that a serving of this cereal only contains a measly 2g of fibre or 8% of your daily recommended value of fibre.
And at this point, you may be confused. The front of the box claimed it would provide 25% of the daily amount of fibre shown to help lower cholesterol...so what is this 8%?
The front-of-package claim isn’t totally wrong...consuming 5 to 10 grams of soluble fibre per day can help to reduce your LDL “bad” cholesterol. (15)
But the percent daily value (%DV) is a reference for how much that product contains in relation to the amount of nutrients you should be consuming daily. For fibre, we should be consuming 25-38 grams per day - that’s where the 8% comes from. (16)
2g / 25g = 0.08 x 100 = 8%
The %DV is a tool to determine whether a product contains a little or a lot of a nutrient. A good rule of thumb is to remember that 5% DV or less is considered a little, whereas 15% DV or more is considered a lot. (17)
Although cholesterol may be something that you are concerned about, there are plenty of other cereals and breakfast options that are higher in fibre (e.g., oatmeal, whole grain toast, whole fruit, etc.). And with most Canadians only consuming half of the recommended amount of fibre - I’d say the %DV holds more value than the cholesterol claim!
Besides the fibre, you have to look at products holistically to get the full story.
When it comes to packaged goods, I like to also look at the saturated and trans fat, sodium, and sugar amounts on these products - looking for products that have 5% or less of their %DV. You may be in for a surprise!
Although the Nutrition Facts Table can provide a lot of important information about your product, the ingredients list can tell you more about where these nutrients may be coming from.
In Canada, ingredient lists must show all the ingredients in a packaged food and list them in order of weight, with the first ingredient weighing the most and the last ingredient weighing the least. In other words, your food will contain more of the ingredients that are displayed at the beginning of the list, and less of the ingredients that are found at the end of the list. (18)
Again let’s look to our cereal example.
As promised on the front-of-package, the first ingredient in the product is whole grain oats...but that’s only the first ingredient - we can’t forget about the rest!
If you continue reading your ingredients list, you’ll learn that the product is mostly sugar (sugar and/or golden sugar, honey, golden syrup), fat (high monounsaturated canola oil, monoglycerides), and sodium (salt, trisodium phosphate).
So knowing this, does the whole grain claim still entice you?
In the end, front of package labels, claims, and buzzwords only paint a small picture of your product. To overcome the health halo effects, you need to look at your product holistically and read the Nutrition Facts Table and Ingredients List.