Are You Eating More Because of Health Claims on Food Labels?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Low fat. Reduced calorie. Zero trans-fat. All natural. Organic. Is it possible that choosing foods advertising these and other similar health claims can actually increase overeating and lead to unhealthier food choices?

Apparently so, according to a growing body of research.

The concept of “health halo” has been around for several years now. Basically, the idea is that packaging that makes health claims about food items (or brands, restaurants, etc) often results in people eating more total calories, and more unhealthy foods, than they otherwise might.

As you can see from this article, there are several ways that health halos can lead to undesirable effects. One is that people tend to seriously underestimate the number of calories actually in a food item that’s labeled “low-fat” or "reduced calorie." This may lead people to increase the portion size they think is appropriate, or to add additional items to their meal, as when someone orders a grilled chicken sandwich instead of a bacon double cheeseburger, but then adds a large soda and a desert because they assume they can “afford” these extras and still come out ahead on calories. Either way, the research indicates that many people often end up eating up to 50% more total calories when choosing foods with health halos.

Another potential problem is that a health-oriented claim like reduced calorie, transfat free, cholesterol free, or organic/ all natural can lead people to select foods, especially snack items, without paying much attention to whether these foods are really a good nutritional deal, or mainly empty calories. The virtuous image created by the health claim seems to somehow short circuit the normal process of evaluating food choices, even for people who are nutritionally knowledgable.

How and why health halos end up leading to higher calorie intake and/or poorer nutritional choices isn’t completely clear. Some studies have found that low-fat or other health claims on food packaging, especially for snack foods, reduce the amount of guilt people feel about eating that item and lower inhibitions enough to lead to calorie overload. Or maybe the health halo triggers a lapse into “mindless mode” and we don’t even stop to wonder whether those transfat-free cookies are really what we need. Or maybe we get so obsessed with or confused by the complexities of trying to figure out which foods are “good” and which are “bad” that we set ourselves up for being overly influenced by the claims made on food packaging.

In any case, experts suggest that one good way to protect yourself against these effects of the health halo is to get in the habit of automatically challenging any health claim you see on food packaging, menus, etc. For example, you could respond by asking yourself “So what?” whenever you see one of these claims. Then you can stop and check the food label for other nutritional info before you determine whether that food is a good deal for you.

Or you could make things even simpler, as Michael Pollan has suggested, and figure that, if the packaging seems to be going for the “health halo effect,” that’s probably a good reason to suspect that what’s inside is really not such a good deal at all.

What do you think about this? Do you think you’re sometimes influenced by the health halo effect? Do the advantages of packaging that advertises certain healthier characteristics of a food outweigh the disadvantages? What do you do to minimize the risk of negative consequences?

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LIS193 6/20/2020
Most things that need a label to explain what’s in it are highly processed and better avoided. Report
CECELW 6/2/2020
low fat doesn't always mean it's healthy Report
MILPAM3 1/10/2020
I saw a "gluten free" sticker on a meat package. C'mon now! Report
FISHGUT3 12/5/2019
thanks Report
Food has calories. Period. So look at labels carefully. Report
There are only a few “packaged” foods I buy, usually oatmeal, cream of wheat, dried fruits with no added sugar, although lately I dry my own, blue corn chips to have with salsa, and occasionally plain yogurt when I am too busy to make my own. I have been a long time label reader, I remember my niece sitting there eating a whole 8 oz can of nuts and saying it was ok because nuts are all protein. Duh, lots of fat there too, that was 8 servings of nuts and almost as much calories as you should eat in a day. She also polished off a tub of family sized hummus with a lb of carrots, saying well there is only 60 calories in the humus and carrots don’t have any calories, if you read the labels that snack was almost 1400 calories. Report
Always, always, always read the ingredient label. If there are a ton of ingredients that sound like one of your old chemistry experiments, then, by all means, avoid that food. Also if in the first three ingredients you find a form of sugar, once again avoid that food. If I cannot pronounce something, then it's food I don't want. Report
I try to be very careful. I think I am doing okay with this. Report
I stick with the knowledge I have about foods, I do my research Report
good points Report
Unfortunately this is all too true. The food industry is out to make a profit and will do it any way possible, even at the expense of truth and customers health using dishonest and unconscionable tactics. Our Government regulatory agencies which govern truth in advertising and rendered impotent by corrupt politicians and powerful lobbyists. The only ones who suffer are the people trying to do the right thing. Report
I know people who think this way... one woman sat and devoured half a chocolate cake because the label said Fat Free... she could not understand why I did not want any. I politely said just because it says fat free doesn't mean there are no calories... ?

Overeating is overeating regardless of the fat content. I felt really bad for her that she had this mentality and eventually she had bypass surgery to lose weight. Don't know how she is today, heard she was a very sick woman after the surgery. Report
No, I don't really do this. I like to get organic if it's not too much more, but I've always been skeptical of health claims on packages. I focus on foods with a few simple ingredients for the most part, for instance I never buy flavored yogurt because I know they're all loaded with added sugar (or artificial sweeteners) no matter what the label says. I always buy plain, unflavored yogurt and add my own fruit if I want to. I don't see the need to add sugar at all.

The automatic spark menus were disappointing. So much cooking sprays, eggbeaters, and fat-free pudding. After years of eating the real stuff, avoiding frozen dinners and fast food, none of this tastes good anymore. I'd much rather have a diet that uses real food, even if that means eating less dessert and more fruits and veggies. I'd much rather fill up with fruits and veggies than fat-free, sugar-free imitations. Report
So we try to be healthy but we want the truth out of nutritional label. And the things they now put on poultry products, that is just not right. Report
yes i try and read labels but. i have found a plan that leaves me less paranoid
about label reading. and i agree with sassi spring about eating at the table.
sometimes you just can't. and people without a room with table to eat at
they emprovise as best they can. Report
I am new to spark and am trying to make reading labels a habbit. I just recently ate some "probiotic" yougurt. I was amazed at how good it tasted. I looked at the label the sodium count was low but 33grams of sugar! Now I will read the label first. Thank you for this article, I will be sure to look out for these tricks. Report
I disagree with M Pollens statement of "always eat at a table." And I will always disagree with that. Many of us don't have that luxery of living where there is room for a table and it angers me that its always in the "list of rules" for eating. There is nothing wrong with eating in a common area of your home, on a tv tray or on your lap, as that isn't the issue - the issue is what you are eating and how much. That aside I've been reading labels since I moved out on my own. It started because of the eating disorders, then continued as a means to ensure that I don't buy stuff with ingrediants I'm allergic to or stuff filled with junk. Many moons back I participated in a health walk through a grocery store and that really changed how I saw the food we purchase. I recommend that to everyone and many larger centres have this through their local health units and such. Or even the grocery chain itself sponsors the walks. I chuckled on the rule about 'make your own as you wouldn't make sweets daily if you did make your own.' He's never lived in a farm house! When I used to bake and make my own bread, it was always in my cupboards and freezer - people came over for sweets and fresh bread. Making own means making more, as rarely are recipes small. Again, its not the issue, the issue is making it at home means you have control on what you put into the food and that does make a difference. My sweets were real sugar, not artifical. My breads were not filled with puffer ingrediants and sugars to heighten taste, as fresh is always tastier. I don't do that now, just too much work and expense when I don't have the same amount of folks around me to take it away. Cereals, I agree, its one of the biggest empty calorie sellers out there for such high prices. I still eat cereal, just am really careful and still, even the "healthier cereals" have high sugar content. The so-called healthy granola cereals are loaded with fats and sugars. It does all make shopping more time consuming, to spend it reading ingrediant lists and budget at the same time. As for the issue with low fat, low calorie etc, I was very aware of this many moons back because of the grocery tours and working as a nurse. The thing is those labels could mean anything, including less colouring and not necessarily mean "this is healthy food." I did find that many folks I knew would eat more thinking that an item was "low fat". They'd think that meant they could eat twice as much and still be healthy. Or eat junk food telling me it was good for you because it was "low in fat and sugars." They just didn't get the whole picture as they bought into the advertisment. And last, its not always feasible to buy whole organic foods because of the extreme high costs - even as a single person its far beyond my budget. CBC Radio did a whole series on this issue last year with folks living on the poverty line, both singles and families. What they discovered was that it was impossible to feed families healthy on these extremely limited budgets. And that to me, is the biggest factor in all this issue on weight, health, food etc - money. Until that's really dealt with, there will always be issues with the other stuff - like eating too many carbs etc. Report
I have been reading nutritional information on packages since they came out, but admit to letting my guard down with the "health halo" packaging. Will be more vigilant from now on. Report
food companies makes money.. they want people to buy their product and get rich,, if we want to be healthy.. try not to take much process food.. cook your own food, try and learn new recepies and we will be great Report
Michael Pollan is right. The best foods don't have any health claims on the labels, if they have any labels at all. They also don't have a list of ingredients because there is only one ingredient. Report
Rarely eat packaged foods and when I do I read the ingredient label. In the past I would have believed someone I trusted no matter what. I have noticed most of the american diet is not good for you. Eat mostly fresh or frozen whole food and you can't go wrong. Report
I admit at first I was drawn to the claims on the Halo's but as my knowledge has increased on nutrition I have not been fooled so much Report
Now my kids and I are reading the lables on everything! Report
I rarely eat anything that comes in a package. Report
I always read the side labels! They can be so misleading on the front! Report
I do my best to eat food that doesn't have a label at all, but when that is not possible, I look at the ingredients list. I have been through several different weight loss programs that were just about low fat/fat free, but these foods often had more salt or sugar in one serving than should be eaten in a day. So over the years, I have learned to turn the package around and find the ingredients list before I buy. Report
I read the labels on everything that has one. But I carry around a nutrition book with me. Report
Thankfully, because of SparkPeople, I now read the nutrition labels instead of believing the front of the package. Thank you, SP! Report
after reading so many articles. I am not so sure about packaged foods. Now I rather just buy fresh produce. I can not wait till farmers markets are open again. that is my favorite time of the year. Report
I used to do this, back when I was "dieting" - it says it's fat-free, so I can eat more!!! D:

I'm a huge skeptic now, and eschew most things with labels (or read and understand what the actual ingredients/nutrients are and/or aren't), especially if they refer to "natural," "heart-smart," "fat-free," "high in fiber" or "made with whole grains." If you have to advertise the nutritional content of a food item, it's likely not exactly as advertised. Report
Just think of all the people who eat salads when they are out because they have a red heart next to the menu, but actually, just because you throw some lettuce and a cucumber in the bowl, doesn't take away from the fact that you have fried chicken, 1000 calorie dressing, and God knows what else in their. Ever see the nutrional info on an Asian Salad? Or then there is the "fat free" things out there, like Twizzlers. How many people used "fat free" to justify eating a 5lb bag a Twizzlers (which are all carbs, of course). I just assume that if it says "low in fat" or "fat free" it is full of carbs, which is bad for a diabetic for me. Or when it is low in sugar, it probably is full of fat. It really rocked my word when I started looking at labels. Report
I have to say this article surprised me. I don't think I've succumbed to eating more just because something says it's better for me (although I probably have). I still look at the nutrition label and make decisions based on that. But I do know the claims on the front of packages will influence whether I pick up the package to look at the nutrition info. This article and similar ones are important wake-up calls, so thanks! Report
Reading labels is important even when we are in a hurry. I have been guilty of grabbing something off the shelf which claimed to be healthy and not reading the label. I have wondered if the foods really are what they say, but pushed it to the back of my head to get the next thing on my list. Report
I used to buy 'diet' food... years ago. Ahem. Back when I was getting fatter and fatter.
Now... I buy healthy food. Yup.
And a treat now and then. Balance, balance.
Too many of the 'diet food' halo wise, leave me unsatisfied, so I eat more, just cause they taste like crap.
Hooray for healthy, vital, home cooked stuff!
Hooray for an occasional Godiva!
I do read the 'this is really good for you' stuff at my stores... and keep in mind that they are trying to sell stuff. Still, they have led me to adding flax pre Spark, so sometimes it pays off. Report
It is so easy to just take them at face value, but find that like everything else in life, things are not quite what they seem. I too try to stick to as many "real" foods so that I don't have to think about it-an apple, banana, orange, they don't have nasty additives. Like others, those 100 calorie packs will sucker you in so I try to avoid these things and limit sugar and salt content. Next need to work on the artificial sweeteners! Report
I don't think I get fooled, probably because I always read the nutritional information on the back. I like to check the ingredients so I limit chemicals, high-fructose, modified, etc. I also don't eat artificial sweeteners, so I have to see what's in it. It amazes me that they can use them in a product without mentioning it anywhere but in the ingredients. Report
The "Halo affect" has zero impact on what I choose. The front of the container is just colors splashed about for all I care. I go immediately to the back to see what a serving size is and the calories, fat, sat fat, Na, etc. are.

I wish that would include potassium in the "have to post numbers" so I can keep a better handle on balancing sodium and potassium levels.

Oh, that's right! TMI might confuse poor, old, fat John Doe (or Jane). Just keep them as dumb as we can. . . . Report
I was fooled greatly by assuming the nutritional values on pkging was correct. Through Spark, I've learned otherwise. I've started cooking again which I really haven't done in over 30 years. It was the low-fat, no sodium, blah, blah, blah foods that I was buying & nuking them in the micro. I've almost enjoyed starting to cook again. I have no option at this point. Report
I almost always check the label on packaged foods to get the full picture nutrition-wise. I've seen too many low-fat products w/lots of calories and low-cal products with lots of unnatural ingredients. As far as ordering desert b/c you ordered a low-cal dinner & have calories to "spare", using the food tracker here regularly helps to dispel that kind of thinking. For me, if I've eaten a healthy dinner, I usually try to stay away from the dessert b/c I've been so good & don't want to ruin it. Report
This is precisely why I have been trying to stick with more whole foods. Report
I used to be suckered in by the health halo effect, but I'm slowly learning my lesson. I used to by a six pack of 100 calorie Sun Chips, for example, only to eat all six packs at once. Once I realized that not only was I getting too many calories, but that the calories were empty and provided no nutritional value, I started to reassess my diet and move towards healthier, whole foods.

I truly believe that the nutrition education I've received from SparkPeople has taught me many lessons and lead through my a-ha moment with eating empty calories, and I'm forever grateful to you guys! (and gals!) Report
The Halo is ever looming. Since being on Spark I'm in tune to the portion size, weighing and knowing how many servings are in those fat free cookies. I've found it better to stay away from these "diet" foods and turn to fruits with yogurt. Report
Just about all of the food I eat doesn`t come with an ingredient list. Just whole foods, and a lot of raw foods. Real simple and healthy.
I don`t buyéeat any of that grocery store crap. Report
Love Michael Pollan. I try to eat as many whole foods as I can for these reasons. Chemicals and god knows what else... no thanks. The US is the only culture that has been brainwashed to think that a huge bowl of chemical-laden low-fat ice cream is somehow better than a scoop of the real thing - cream and all.

It's called moderation. Report
I always read the nutrition info even if I have used the product for a long while--because companies change their ingredients and don't ask our permission. Report
I used to be influenced by the "Health Halo effect", but not any more. I discovered that the "low fat" foods were higher in sugar, tasted too sweet, and didn't have the correct texture. The "low sugar" foods were higher in fat, didn't taste right, and had a weird texture. The "low salt" foods were higher in sugar and/or fat (except for canned vegetables) and didn't taste right either.
Now I buy the "real" thing, but eat less of it. Usually I don't buy prepared foods, although I do buy "low salt" canned vegetables (the regular canned vegetables have WAY too much salt). Mostly I buy unprocessed foods - foods the way nature made them and then combine them myself. I can control sugar, fat, and sodium to my requirements and increase fiber, protein, or other macronutrients as I desire or need.
I track all of my food, so I don't eat more of "healthy" things. But I can definitely see how other people can and I've seen friends and family do it.

The true information is on the back of the box/can/bag. The ingredients list tells me a whole lot more than the "health claims" on the front. Report
I was definitely drawn in by the "fat free" craze. I was buying fat-free everything, and finding that (a) I didn't like the taste, and (b) it wasn't helping -- in most cases, they simply substituted sugar for the fat, and to counteract that sweet taste, I was adding more salt! I now tend to go halfway -- I look for reduced fat, but read labels carefully. I'd rather have less of something I like the taste of, like a light ranch dressing, than to go fat-free and not like the taste! Report
I stay away from all of it because it is not real food. Report