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“Health Halo” Effect

As rates of overweight and obese Americans have reached record-levels, advertising claims have become more common on the fronts of food packaging, creating concerns that they may lead consumers to see foods as healthier than they really are (Brownell & Horgen, 2004; Nestle, 2002; Pomeranz, 2001). The effects of marketing can be significant because nutrition claims made on packaging can create “health halos” that make foods appear healthier than they are, leading to higher consumption yet lower perceived calorie intake. It is important to understand that influence of nutrition claims (e.g. “low fat”, “high fiber”) on health-related judgments and decisions.   The effects of health claims on packaging is seen in a study done by Wansink and Chandon (2006) found that labeling both “healthy” and “unhealthy” food as “low fat” reduced calorie estimation by 20%-25%, and increased what was considered to be the “appropriate serving size” by 20%.

Chandon and Wansink introduced the “health halo” effect in 2007, referring to the findings that people tend to underestimate the calorie content of foods in restaurants where food choices are advertised as healthy, compared to restaurants that do not advertise a health image. One healthy attribute leads consumers to assume that foods offer other healthy but unclaimed attributes. Health claims on a product can produce a “halo effect” where consumers reported beneficial effects from the product beyond those specifically mentioned in the claim.  This shows that the way consumers are processing the information they seeing on packages is far more complex than them simply processing it, they use their own beliefs and ideas and therefor interpret the information in a different way than it may be presented. For instance many consumers may mistakenly think that low fat equates to low calorie.

The mere presence of a low-fat claim has been shown to lead to underestimation of calories and greater consumption (Wansink and Chandon 2006). In a study products with a half-the-fat claim and half-the-calorie claim 22 percent of the participants made a positive “health halo” inference and thought the product was “healthy” or “good for you.” Though the study found that the products that claimed to be “better-for-you” tended to be “healthier”. But this is not to say that “healthier” is synonymous with “healthy”.

“Labeling snacks as low fat increases food intake during a single consumption occasion by up to 50%. This is robust across both hedonic utilitarian snacks, across young and old consumers across self-reported nutrition experts and novices, in public and private consumption, and regardless of whether people serve themselves or not” Wansink and Chandon 2006.

Studies by Wanskin and Chandon 2006 suggested that low-fat nutrition claims increase consumption because they increase perception of the appropriate serving size and reduce anticipate consumption guilt. “Health halos influence consumption because people feel that they can eat more of healthy food, or can eat more unhealthy (but tasty) food after eating healthy food without suffering any adverse health consequences” (Ramanathan and Williams 2007).

The effect that marketing can have on consumers purchasing habits is shown in Kellogg’s decision to market its first health claim. In 1984, Kellogg worked with the National Cancer Institute to endorse a health claim for All-Bran cereal, within six months the products market share increased by 47%.   Kozup, Cyer, and Burton (2003) showed that “when a heart-healthy claim is on the package or menu, consumers generally judge the product to reduce the likelihood of heart disease or stroke, but favorable nutrition information lead to more positive attitudes toward the product, nutrition, and purchase intentions.” When unfavorable nutrition information is available, the heart-healthy claim has no influence on either the evaluations or disease risk perception.

This overall pattern results suggests that consumers may be somewhat wary of health claims and prefer instead to trust the information contained on the Nutrition Facts panel when it is available. Favorable nutrition information on Nutrition Facts panels have even stronger effects than health claims on product attitude and purchase intentions. Never the less, results showed that there were positive effects of the inclusion of a heart-healthy claim on a package or menu.

Marketers Use Words to Influce the Way You Think About Food

“[At] no point in US history have food products displayed so many symbols and statements proclaiming nutrition and health benefits.” The marketing that companies use on the front of their products in order to sell their goods is important because it reaches consumers at time of purchase and consumption. The amount of new food products, in 2000, that were marked “reduced/low fat”, 2,076 out of 16,890, had peaked at this time. There is a growing concern about nutrition and consumers wanting nutritional information on labels and they want more health food items conveniently available to them, found Nestle and Ludwig.

In the past years, marketers have become increasingly likely to make heavy use of nutrition claim (including “low fat”), health claims, and vague unregulated claims or health sales (“smart choice” or “good for you”). The words that marketers use to explain products can have a profound effect on consumer’s perceived nutrition of the food. There is a rise in the amount of foods claiming to be “better-than-you” because “the message that a food or food component is naturally and intrinsically healthy is one of the most appealing to consumers in all cultures” (Stone 2009).

Almost 70 percent of American adults age 20 or over the a were identified as overweight or obese.  What makes obesity so relevant in this century?  High body mass index (BMI) among children and adolescents has become and continues to be a major public health concern in the United States because it is the source of so many health issues. Children with high BMI often become obese adults, and obese adults are at risk for many chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers.  The key issue is that the majority of these diseases are preventable.  But when people chose their food items, nutrition ranks last in a survey of the drivers of food choices, after taste, cost, and convenience.

This social issue trend can be traced all the way back to the grocery store and restaurants.  When one walks down a grocery isle they are bombarded with a variety of products claiming to be healthy for them, whole grain, low-fat, low cholesterol, sugar free, fiber rich, the claims are endless.  The decision to purchase processed food products differs from other purchasing decision. This is due to the fact that a health claim present of the front of packaging is typically encounter before nutrition information, which is usually present on the back or side panes, is processed.

Even when consumers are aware of the persuasive intent behind various marketing communication tools, they may not realize that their consumption decisions are being influenced, Chandon, Pierre, and Wansink (2012).

The effects that health claims can have on their perception of a food item can be shown just by the name of the food. The name of the food has a strong influence on how consumers’ expectations of how tasty, filling, or fattening the food will be, which are often uncorrelated with reality. For example, a study showed that branding the same food as a “salad special” versus “pasts special” or as “fruit chews” versus “and chews” increased dieters perceptions of the healthfulness or tastiness of the food as well as its actual consumption. Although, the name changes had no impact on non-dieters. This same effect of wording can be seen in again in that food is perceived to be leaner and higher quality when labeled “75% fat-free” than “25% fat.”

The effect of key words on packaging happens as well in other products who have health claims that do not specifically claim to be low-fat. Andrews, Netermeyer, and Burton (1998) show that consumers falsely infer that foods low in cholesterol are low in fat. Similarly, there is anecdotal evidence that some consumers erroneously believe that low-fat nutrition claim indicate fewer calories (National Institutes of Health 2004).

The effects of marketing can be significant because nutrition claims made on packaging can create “health halos” that make foods appear healthier than they are, leading to higher consumption yet lower perceived calorie intake. It is important to understand that influence of nutrition claims (e.g. “low fat”, “high fiber”) on health-related judgments and decisions.

Chandon and Wansink introduced the “health halo” effect in 2007, referring to the findings that people tend to underestimate the calorie content of foods in restaurants where food choices are advertised as healthy, compared to restaurants that do not advertise a health image. One healthy attribute leads consumers to assume that foods offer other healthy but unclaimed attributes. Health claims on a product can produce a “halo effect” where consumers reported beneficial effects from the product beyond those specifically mentioned in the claim.

The Nutritional Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA) establish criteria by which nutrient and health claims can be made on food packaging. Although health claims have been used on package labels since 1984, they have been criticized as vague, trivial, or misleading (Silvergald 1996). Although foods that are sold for immediate consumption, such as in restaurants, on airplanes, and from vending machines, are not covered by all aspects of NLEA.