I've noticed you've been trying to eat healthy lately. In a bid to lose the (let's face it) inevitable Diwali weight gain, you've been chucking out bags of chocolates and boxes of cookies with reckless abandon. Some of the items found in our cupboard scream "treats" - such as double-dipped caramel popcorn or that delicious bag of deep-fried mixture. These are the foods we can make snap decisions on, whether they are "good for you" or "bad for you." Clear out the "bad" foods, make way for the "good."
Easy peasy, mission accomplished, right? So let's watch the pounds drop off, shall we?
Not so fast. We don't live in a world defined only in black and white, good versus evil, healthy and unhealthy. We should now understand that there is a substantial middle "grey area" on a spectrum.
This spectrum also applies to our food choices, and food marketers know exactly how to capture our attention in the grey area and entice us to make a food choice based on how healthy we perceive the food to be. It's called the "health halo" effect of food marketing, a term defined by the MacMillan Dictionary as "the perception that a particular food is good for you even when there is little or no evidence to confirm this is true."
If you're unsure how food marketers can trick you into thinking a product is healthy for you when it happily resides in the "grey area" of foods, take this example.
Imagine I put two cereal boxes in front of you. Both are brightly labelled, adorned with gorgeous images of their cereal topped with fruit. One package says buzz phrases like "naturally flavoured," "enriched with Vitamins B12", and "gluten-free." The other cereal package doesn't. So which one do you immediately perceive as being healthier?
As a nutrition coach, I review a lot of food diaries for clients. I often dialogue with them about their food choices to better understand how "good" they perceive their diet. Almost 80-90% of them will tell me their diet is "pretty good" when their food diaries (and weight gain) claim otherwise. I've realized over time that it's not my client acting flippant or ignorant. It's just that they believed the flashy buzzwords presented to them in the supermarket aisle. After all, when living busy lives, we make snap decisions about our food choices based on the buzzwords on the box.
In early 2020, a UK youth organization called "Bite Back 2030" commissioned a report to analyze over 500 popular grocery brands to determine if their halo marketing tactics reflected the product's nutritional value inside the box. They found a whopping 57% of these brands had health halo claims on their packaging but were either deemed high sodium, high fat, or high sugar.
Also read: Is intermittent fasting good for you?
One of my favourite examples of the health halo comes from the oddest source - the Snickers Bar. Before you immediately judge me to be crazy, Bob Mostra, the leader behind Snicker's rebranding, found that people who buy a Snickers bar believe it to be a quick and convenient meal replacement to satisfy their hunger. Other chocolate bars on the market were being sold as providing a calming, relaxing effect. Snickers seized this opportunity to talk about providing energy on the go. In hot pursuit of this rebranding endeavour came ads containing ordinary people becoming hangry (hungry + angry) in socially awkward situations, only satisfied by a quick bite of a Snickers bar. I think most of us would agree these ads were entertaining. However, they were entertaining and effective, as it solidified in consumers' minds that Snickers was an appropriate replacement for a meal or a quick boost of energy. It doesn't change that Snickers is still a chocolate bar containing chocolate, caramel, and peanuts. It may be delicious, quick, and convenient; healthy, it is not.
My second favourite example is vitamin water. I won't hide from you that I used to occasionally pick up one on the way to work, until one day, I turned around the bottle to examine the label. I had initially chosen vitamin water because it was in a brightly coloured package. The flavour sounded nice; the name itself said "vitamin," and I was under the assumption I would be healthier for drinking it. Not really. A bottle of Focus, for instance, had 33g of carbohydrates, 32g of sugar, and 26g of added sugar. (5) According to Coca-Cola, their 12oz can of regular Coca-Cola has 39g of sugar. One could argue that my synthetic soup of vitamins had more nutrient value than the can of Coca-Cola; however, the trade-off of getting those vitamins was at the cost of a high volume of total sugar. I'd rather eat an orange.
So what and who do we believe in our food choices? The first step is to become more critical of the messages on supermarket shelves. What faces you, the consumer, is the bright, fun, splashy front of the box. Knowing what you know now about trendy, healthy buzzwords and food marketing, the information you truly seek is found on the back of the box: the nutrition label and ingredients list. You can take back some control of your diet by becoming educated in what makes up a nutrition label so that you can start identifying if a food choice is the right one for you.
The second step is to understand better how foods fit into your diet. Despite labels such as "unhealthy" or "bad," no food will automatically make you unhealthy or put on weight. It's how much you choose to eat of that type of food that can. Once you understand where your food choices lie on the spectrum, you can make better decisions about how much and how often you eat them to stand within your goals.