Creating "Beware-ness" of the Health Halos

Health halos are nothing new. For those of you who have been following my blogs, you might remember my rants on the evils of added sugars and the federal government's complicity in enabling added sugars and "bad carbs" to dominate our western food system (exhibit A, the Food Pyramid).

As long ago as the 1960's and 1970's, government authorities relating to health and medicine told us that diabetes was caused by obesity and lack of exercise, with no mention of the prevalence of added sugars.

This led to the birth of the "Health Halo" effect, a marketing strategy by Big Sugar's most prominent brands to overestimate a product's health, by blasting "low-fat" and "low-calorie" all over the packaging and advertising.

Research has established that these claims actually convinced people of a product's health, and thus, gave them license to consume more than they should.[i]

On the legally-mandated labels that we are supposed to trust, sodium is pushed to the back of the ingredients list so that the seemingly healthier ingredients and low-fat and low-calorie monikers are front and center.[ii]

Misleading Terms to Attract Consumers
In recent years, new terms like "low-carb" and "trans-fat free" have been added to the marketing mix to attract and mislead consumers. BEWARE of these terms and read between the lines to better understand what food manufacturers are doing to make their products more flavorful!

  • "Low-carb" foods will likely have significant amounts of "bad fats."
  • "Low-fat" foods will likely have significant amounts of added sugars.[iii]

Fast food stores and restaurant chains have jumped into the act with the "healthier menus" that they promote. Their customers will purchase a salad or sandwich billed as "low fat," "low-carb," or "low-calorie" and then rationalize the ordering of extra sides and a soda or other sugar-sweetened beverage because they made a "healthy" choice for their entrée. 

Even desserts and sugar-sweetened beverages are dressed up with a healthier sounding name that appeals to the consumer. How many times have we seen the term "Lite" on these packages?

iStock-629786322 organic natural food labelsIn addition to "low-calorie" and "low-fat," there are some other less obvious health halo terms that we need to beware of because marketers love to use them for the simple reason that they sound so good for us.

  • Natural
    The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) does not have a formal definition of natural. They are okay with the use of the term if the product does not have added colors, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances, but they do not seem to care if that same product has added sugars. Just check the label of any cereal box with "Natural" on the front, and chances are you will find added sugars.
  • Organic  
    To use the term "organic" by itself means that 95% of the ingredients have to be organic. There are many products out there that read "made with organic ingredients" that only have to consist of 70% organic ingredients. Either way, there are still organic junk food products, like baked goods, that are not healthy for you. Again, always read the label.
  • Gluten-Free
    The FDA defines a gluten-free product as one that limits the unavoidable presence of gluten to less than 20 parts per million and makes allowances for manufacturers to use the term for foods that do not possess any wheat, rye, or barley. Beware of this health halo term the most, as many gluten-free foods are highly processed with refined ingredients like white rice, sugar, and salt.   
  • Local
    Like the term "natural," there is no formal definition for the term "local," and I would wager that many of the products marked this way can come within a thousand mile radius. Of greater importance,  a product branded as "local" is not automatically healthy, yet you would be surprised by the number of people who confuse the term "local" with "organic" or "natural." Again, read the labels![
Marketing Tactics Bear the Health Halo Effect

Noble marketing terms like "local" promote a company's commitment to greater social responsibility. Research has shown that consumers will interpret a company's benevolence to mean that their products are of a higher quality, including positive health attributes. Other noble promotions intended to mislead buyers include "environmentally-friendly," "employee-owned," or have a charitable cause on the label.

Since clever food marketers are given license to "stretch the language" in promoting their brands, I am coming up with my special phrase in helping people understand the truth behind these health halos – BEWARE-NESS. 

It is not enough to simply be aware that these terms are out there, but we need to beware of the dangerous repercussions these deceiving words have in forming our meal and snack choices. In our next blog, we will discuss the best tips for reading food packaging labels, as well as other smart shopping tools that help you see past the health halos.

How to Be a Smart Food Shopper


[i] https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/mar/11/know-what-you-eat-health-halo
[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/mar/11/know-what-you-eat-health-halo
[iii] https://www.foodnetwork.com/healthyeats/healthy-tips/2012/11/one-small-change-avoid-the-health-halo
[iv] https://www.health.com/nutrition/5-most-confusing-health-halo-food-terms

Sean Browne

Sean Browne

Chief Revenue Officer, CCS Medical

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