• Dr Sally Norton

BEWARE THE HEALTH HALO


With news increasingly focused on the dangers of too much sugar in our diets, including fizzy drinks and fruit juice, you may have a brief moment of sympathy for the drinks producers who could find their profits dropping like bags of sugar. (Or maybe not!!).


But, are they worried? Chances are, they are actually seeing this as a great opportunity. Think about the product Coca-Cola launched in response to this concern - Coke Life.


Yes, it contains less sugar than standard coke, but, by introducing this new product to their range we are lulled into thinking that this makes coke more acceptable and no doubt will have increased sales of all forms of coke as a result.

Not to mention the green packaging, which we associate with health, freshness and goodness as well as the new name, which suggests it will invigorate us.

We may even end up drinking even more of it, thinking it is healthy, though it supposedly has only 1/3 less sugar than normal coke…. so it wouldn’t be at all surprising if we end up drinking as much sugar from coke as we did before.


This is the ‘health halo’ effect that marketers are tapping into in a massive way, thanks to our desire to eat and drink more healthily – and it’s not doing us any good!

The problem with the ‘Health Halo’ effect


Studies show that if we are looking for healthier food and are given products that we believe to be healthier, we may well end up buying and eating more of them. A study from the University of Houston looked closely at how we are duped by health-related ‘buzz-words’ on packaging – even if the claims are not borne out by the actual food labelling.

Participants were presented with two versions of images of food products. One showed a health–related term such as ‘anti-oxidant’ on the label, in the other version the term was blanked out. Food content labels were also shown. The participants tended to view the products with the buzz-words as healthier – showing that we tend to buy based on a superficial impression of the product rather than a proper assessment. How easily we are manipulated!


In fact, BBCs Rip-Off Britain were so concerned about this that they asked me to appear on one of their programmes a year or so back, explaining why 'natural' 'farm-fresh' etc doesn't always mean better for health.


So, let’s look at a few great examples and see where you may have been duped…

Natural

What does natural mean?! There are a lot of substances occurring in nature that we wouldn’t dream of eating…but if a product is labelled ‘natural’ we love it! ‘Natural sugar’ is a great one used by juice manufacturers in which they try to imply that the sugar in fruit juice is healthier than other sugar – which is simply not true!


‘Sugar-free’

Actually this term can cover any number of sins. Honey is still a sugar, so is apple-juice or other ‘natural sweeteners’. Sugar-free may also mean packed with artificial sweeteners, which may not be a great choice for life-long nutrition.

‘Packed with fruit’

May be lovely but may also be simply ‘packed with sugar’. It depends if the fruit has been processed or remains whole.

‘Straight from the farm’ / ‘farm-fresh’

​​This conjures up images of animals grazing or pecking blissfully in green pastures, but could easily mean a factory farm-like environment. Not good for animals, nor for us. These terms mean nothing – does farm-fresh mean your veggies were picked this morning and are full of nutrients, or stored for days leaching some vitamins by over 70%?

Whole-grain, anti-oxidant, omega-3 rich

These healthy-sounding terms and many others may also genuinely indicate health benefits – but not necessarily so. For example from the 7UP website: “NEW Diet Cherry 7UP Antioxidant has the same great taste without the calories of the original. Refreshing all natural flavors with a splash of antioxidant. We’ll drink to that!”… No thank you!

‘Organic’

​​Whilst we know that ‘organic’ foods should be produced without the use of pesticides they can have as many calories or as much fat and sugar as non-organic food. So, they may be better for the environment, and common sense suggests they may be better for you too…but this isn’t a license to eat more of them!

Branding

As per the Coke Life example, it isn’t just the wording but the colour and imagery used in branding. Greens and muted browns suggest nature, yellows and oranges suggest sunshine, vitamins, and vitality. Pictures of leaves, grass, farms, animals all make us assume, possibly very wrongly that these products are close to nature.

Now that’s not to say if the products are natural (in a good way) and full of health benefits then we don’t want to know about it. Just be aware that the unscrupulous side of the food industry isn’t averse to leading you totally up the garden path (or the supermarket aisle, more like) – so don’t be conned into believing everything you read, nor of thinking that if a product seems to be healthier, you can safely eat bigger servings of it. Read the labels carefully, keep a healthy dose of cynicism and make sure that health halo isn’t actually a ring of deceit!


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