While it is not a new concept, the term “health halo” has gained considerable ground over the past couple years.
It refers to our tendency to overestimate the healthfulness of a food based on clever marketing claims, often printed in bright, bold colors on the front of a package.
And while these health halos aren’t necessarily an intentional con, they can permeate popular culture in ways that lead to wide-spread confusion among consumers.
Ever hear of the low-fat craze? I thought so.
The origins of this craze seem well-intentioned enough. Congress, seeing rising incidents of diet-related health issues in the late 1970s, called for the creation of the first set of dietary guidelines for Americans.
These guidelines are still published every five years and reflect the current body of nutrition science, helping health professionals and policymakers guide Americans to make healthier food and drink decisions.
The trouble was, the current body of nutrition science in the late 1970s pointed the finger primarily at dietary fat. Consumers ultimately heard: fat is bad, carbs are good (all carbs, not just the whole-grain, fruit and vegetable kind).
And what the consumer wants, the food industry is happy to oblige. Think low-fat ice cream, chips and cookies on every shelf.
Since snacks that don’t taste good, don’t sell well, sugar was added. And so swings the pendulum, as we’re seeing today with the societal call for eating patterns free from sugar and full of fat.
No one stops to consider that somewhere in the middle of that swing is where health and enjoyment are likely to be found.
For a more modern-day health halo, look no further than Oprah’s O, That’s Good! pizza line promoted as being made “with a twist of cauliflower” on the front of the package.
Don’t get me wrong, cauliflower is a delicious vegetable, rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber. But if you compare Oprah’s pizza to a similar thin-crust pepperoni pizza that makes no such health halo claims, you’ll see what I mean.
One slice of Oprah’s pizza clocks in at 330 calories, 740 milligrams of sodium, 4.5 grams of saturated fat and 3 grams of sugar.
One slice of Digiorno’s pizza clocks in at 310 calories, 790 milligrams of sodium, 7 grams of saturated fat and 3 grams of sugar.
While Oprah’s pizza does boast fewer grams of saturated fat per slice, keep in mind that the saturated fat content is likely coming from a difference in the amount of cheese and pepperoni toppings, rather than the cauliflower added to the crust.
So, next time you’re considering buying a food or drink solely because it claims to be healthier than the competition, check for a floating halo first.