Food products advertised as healthy lead consumers to overeat and misjudge portion sizes, according to a French researcher. Package design and marketing claims of nutritional value form a "health halo," says Pierre Chandon, director of the INSEAD Social Science Research Center in Paris.
Part of the reason why people overeat, Chandon says, is because they assume that food marketed as healthy has fewer calories. Chandon coined the term "health halo," which he defines as marketing, health and nutrition claims made on packaging which make foods appear healthier than they are, leading to higher consumption yet lower perceived calorie intake.
He made the comparison that any foot-long Subway sandwich is often seen as having fewer calories than a McDonald's Big Mac because Subway markets itself as a healthy fast food option. In his research, Chandon says people often assume that they can eat more of supposedly "good" food. In a 2006 study, Chandon found that by labeling chocolate candies as "low fat," consumption during one meal increased by 16 percent for normal-weight people and 46 percent among those who are overweight. However, this had no effect on their estimates of how many calories they had eaten.
"Health halos are pervasive because people tend to approach food with a qualitative mindset [thinking that] food is either good or bad and if the food is good in one particular nutritional aspect, it has to be good on everything, whereas reality is a lot more complicated," says Chandon.
In a new BBC documentary, "The Men Who Made Us Fat," Chandon explains that food marketers see an opportunity in marketing food as healthy and that the health-conscious eaters are likely to be misled.
"The paradox of low fat food and high fat people is not going to go away, I think it's just going to get worse," Chandon says in the documentary.
Unlike mandatory nutrition facts on food packaging, the information on the front of food packaging is at the will of the marketers. This information includes brand names, imagery, benefit claims, seals and endorsements.
One way to avoid the trap of being swayed by health and nutritious claims on packaging is to carefully read the nutrition facts, says Los Angeles weight loss surgeon Dr. Hooman Shabatian, who was not involved in the study.
"It's important to educate yourself on nutrition and to look at the specific amount of fat, sugar and calories, especially when trying to lose weight," says Shabatian. "For instance, many of the cereals marketed to children are very high in sugar, yet the box may say that it's a good source of fiber or that it has whole grains."
The level of success these health claims achieve varies for different products, says Chandon. Some people buy foods because they are marketed as healthy, while others assume "low fat" means "low flavor." Certain labels have different effects in terms of expectations of taste intensity and pleasantness, he says.
"Health claims, therefore, need to be carefully targeted to the product category and the consumer segment," said Chandon. "In addition, not all health claims are the same. For example, one study found that ‘low calorie' and ‘no trans fat' labels increase popcorn sales, whereas ‘low fat' labels don't."
Instead of worrying about which foods are healthy and which aren't, Chandon says, it's more important to focus on reasonable portion sizes. While snacking and low fat foods don't have to be avoided, people should take health halos into account when making decisions on what to eat, Chandon says.
To read Chandon's article "How Package Design and Packaged-based Marketing Claims Lead to Overeating," in its entirety, visit the Social Science Research Network electronic library at http://ssrn.com/abstract=2083618.