Health Halo Effect

The health halo effect: the perception of health-related qualities in one thing gives rise to the perception of similar qualities in related things. It happens to be one of my pet peeves as a Registered Dietitian and something I feel strongly enough about to share with you.

1) Buy Organic?

Are organic foods really more nutritious? Perception is not reality. In fact organic foods do not have more nutrients than their non-organic counterparts, or conventional foods. Overall, studies show that organic and conventional foods are about the same from a nutritional standpoint. The use of organic farming practices may encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution which can be healthier for the environment but this does not translate to making the food any more nutritious. Organic produce is also more expensive than conventional produce. As a majority of Americans are not eating enough fruits and vegetables to meet recommendations for health and since the nutrients in organic and conventional foods are the same, it makes sense and cents to promote conventional foods until all Americans are eating enough fruits and vegetables. After all, eating these foods will help protect us from the chronic diseases that are today’s leading causes of death – heart disease and stroke, cancer, diabetes and obesity.

2) Buy Local?

When I find local foods at my supermarket that are a good price, I purchase these to both enjoy their delicious flavors and support the local economy. One of my absolute favorites are the delicious cocktail tomatoes grown in Maine at Backyard Farms. I am not familiar with any research that shows that local foods are more nutritious than foods from outside one’s geographical area. My belief is that it is a personal lifestyle choice to support local farmers and producers as well as the local economy and environment. While I applaud those who make the effort to visit farmers’ markets and participate in food co-ops and community supported agriculture or CSAs; it is up to an individual to make that choice. Choose those foods that are affordable and accessible to you. Buying local may not be an affordable or accessible choice for those with limited resources and/or transportation.

3) Front-of-Pack Marketing

Terms such as ‘lower fat’ ‘lower calorie’ ‘natural’ ‘multi-grain’ ‘fiber’ ‘grains’ ‘organic’ splashed across the front of processed food packages are very attractive to consumers. Most people assume that these terms mean that those foods are more nutritious and are healthier-for-you than other foods. I’ve grown leery of the use of these words because in many cases they are not entirely accurate. For instance, the term ‘natural’ does not have an official definition. What does it mean exactly? Is natural a good thing? Or is it just “a thing” with regard to its use on food packages. Some day there may be a precise definition but until then the only way to know exactly what you are eating is to read the Nutrition Facts label and the ingredients list. And even then given the laundry list of ingredients on most packaged goods you practically need to be a food scientist to figure out what some of the terms really mean.

4) Whole Foods

I went into a Whole Foods supermarket one day recently to see what all the fuss was about. I thought that I would have some lunch and sit and observe the store in action. They had a lovely pizza station so I ordered a handmade pizza. While my pizza was cooking, I went to find a beverage. In the beverage aisle I did find a wide assortment of high calorie beverages that were flavored with all kinds of ‘natural’ sugars, vitamins, minerals and colors that made many promises regarding my health and well-being. They were expensive. I settled for water. As I wandered around, I found processed foods and beverages that use the “health halo effect” very effectively, indeed! Words like natural, organic, etc. are used liberally to market the products themselves. But were they really better for you? It amazed me that seemingly intelligent and hip shoppers are willing to pay more for products that are not more nutritious but are positioned so in smart packaging with fancy marketing words.

I know I am partial to Guiding Stars where the work of deciphering the label and ingredients list has been done for us! Remembering too that Guiding Stars is blind to brand, price and manufacturer and you can understand why following the stars will help you find the most nutritious foods and beverages for the calories.

About our Nutrition Expert

Lori Kaley MS, RD, LD, MSB is a member of the Guiding Stars Scientific Advisory Panel. Lori has 30 years of combined experience working in healthcare and public health creating policies and environments to help families and children have access to healthy foods and beverages. She is currently Policy Associate at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service.

Lori’s greatest achievement and joy has been in raising her three daughters to be healthy and productive young adults, each with their own particular love of food, cooking and being physically active. Lori’s passion for nutritional community outreach has been a cornerstone of the Guiding Stars Scientific Advisory Panel. Lori regularly contributes to the Guiding Stars blog.