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Beware of These 5 Health Halos

Beware of These 5 Health Halos

We’re all for corporate responsibility and social good, but it seems that as the American waistline expands, so does the distance between those two ideas. Now, a report reveals the latest marketing trick you should watch for: food and drink products from “socially-responsible” companies are enticing you to shell out more money and consume more calories -- all while trumpeting their not-so-real virtues. In short, they don “health halos” that fool you into thinking their products are better for you than those of “lesser” brands. Case-in-point: a company makes a great 100% whole grain cereal, but then adds sugar or high fructose corn syrup to it. Then they advertise it as if the sugar or high fructose corn syrup wasn’t tearing up your insides. That’s one way health halos can lead you to make false assumptions while getting you to eat more “food felons” like saturated fat and added sugars.

Studies show how people reacted to a snack food they thought came from an ethically-minded manufacturer. Study volunteers read information about the supposedly responsible snack-food maker, then estimated the calories in -- and ate -- cheese crackers from that company. Other volunteers did the same, without hearing the made-up marketing story first. Those who thought their snack came from a responsible company ate significantly more and believed the crackers had significantly fewer calories. So here are a few marketing tricks to be on the look-out for.

  1. The words “organic” and “local”: When the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab asked study volunteers to estimate calories in organic and conventional cookies, potato chips and yogurt, those who thought they were eating organic treats said they tasted as if they were lower in fat and had more fiber – and were willing to pay more for them. In reality, they were eating the same foods, with different labels. In an earlier study, munchers estimated that organic cookies contained 40% fewer calories. Organic simply means organic. And the word local only means produced in your area. In a University of Florida survey, 17% thought local meant organic and 22% thought it meant the food was made without genetically-modified organisms.
  2. Items listed as healthy on fast-food menus or at upscale eateries. When study volunteers munched at a sandwich chain they considered healthier than a burger joint, they estimated that calorie counts were 23% lower than they really were. And they chose higher-calorie side dishes, drinks and desserts -- erasing the benefits of their healthy choice, a study found. Some ate 56% more calories as a result! Another study found diners at an expensive health-food restaurant under-estimated the calories they thought came from the meal they were eating -- and overestimated the calories in food from a fast food joint.
  3. Green-hued labels: Does the color of the wrapper magically make a candy bar healthier? Nope – but in two studies when researchers gave volunteers candy bars with red, green or white labels, the green types were rated as healthier and lower in calories. Amazingly, the calorie levels were listed on the front of all of the bars, and were the same.
  4. Fair trade foods: We’re in favor of fair-trade coffee and chocolate from companies that make sure the people who pick and process these foods receive fair wages. But don’t let that virtue entice you to over-indulge. In one California State University study, people rated chocolate they thought was fair trade as lower-calorie than chocolate they thought came from a less-ethical maker.
  5. Performance drinks: A University of California Berkeley study warns that many sports and performance drinks are essentially sugared sodas without the fizz – adding liquid-candy calories to your diet without delivering many benefits. Truth is, most exercisers and weekend athletes don’t need special drinks to fuel their workouts, boost their game or turbocharge that 5K (water, fruit and nuts should do it). Sweet drinks could boost your risk for heart disease, arthritis and weight gain.

Medically reviewed in August 2019.

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