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Are you falling for the 'Health Halo'?

Published : Tuesday May 21, 2013 | Posted in : General Health
The health connotations of food labels

Quick – take a look in your kitchen cupboard. Which do you think have fewer calories - the pricey organic biscuits or the normal ones? If you’re like the 115 people recently questioned by a team of health researchers in New York, you’re going to say the organic ones. In fact, when their group were asked how many calories were in an organic product compared to a regular one, they said it was 20.1 per cent less for a yogurt, 23.1 per cent less for crisps and 24.1 per cent less for cookies. Welcome to the ‘Health Halo’.

That’s what food researchers call the idea, that just because a food has a claim on the front that makes it sound healthier or better for the environment, it mysteriously loses calories in our minds. It’s not the first time it’s been shown – we tend to think we can consume more of foods labelled low-fat, believe Fairtrade products are less calorific than other brands and according to research from the University of Michigan, people are even more likely to say they’d skip the gym after eating a dessert marked organic than if they eat a normal one.

Why do we fall for it?

For starters we want to believe the good in things. If we see one positive message on a food label, we assume the rest of the product reflects that. In fact, researchers have shown that if there’s a healthy claim on the front of a product, people are less likely to read the actual nutrition facts on the back.

However we’re also governed by something psychologists call the ‘Law of Moral License’. For example, if we do one good thing –ie buy a product we think is good for the environment or helps out farmers in a developing country – we give ourselves permission to do something we’d normally think was a bit naughty afterwards, such as buy biscuits when we’re watching our weight. The farmers might thank you, but your waistline probably won’t.

Reduce your Risk

The good news is simply knowing about health halos can reduce their hold on us. But here are some other simple strategies that stop you getting taken in.

Make it a habit to read food labels

In the trial people who regularly did this were not tricked by the organic name, and turned the product over to check the calorie content. That’s possibly one reason why people who regularly read labels weigh on average 8.8lb less than those who don’t. You don’t need a nutrition degree to be able to assess the calorie content of a product – just remember the big to try and choose foods that per 100g have less than 15g sugar, 5g saturated fat and/or 0.6g sodium.

Know what a claim really means

People who regularly bought organic goods, or who carried out other environmentally friendly behaviours like recycling were also less likely to be taken in. The researchers say they believe this is because these consumers understood what the organic claim really meant –understanding that they were produced without chemicals and pesticides.

Use the idea of opposites

Before you buy a healthy looking food ask yourself, ‘Are there any reasons I can see why this food might not be good for me?’ This puts the brakes on ‘I’ve been good’ thinking and helps you see things more critically. If the item in your hand is still high in sugar, salt, saturated fat or calories or has lots of ingredients with numbers or names you don’t recognise chances are it’s not a health food – no matter how organic, low-fat or Fairtrade it might be.

This is a guest post by Helen Foster, a freelance health writer for women’s magazine Cosmopolitan.

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