Health Halos and Deceptive Marketing

Recently, an article appeared in the Huffington Post discussing health halos. You may not have heard the term before, but I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept. The article discussed a small change in the menu of the fast food chain Panda Express. They recently replaced their ‘fried rice’ side dish with ‘fried brown rice’. That’s a good thing right? Brown rice is healthier than white rice—but does this change mean that this side is a healthy choice?

According to the nutrition data on their website, Panda Express fried rice has 470 calories—a lot for a side dish! Besides having fewer calories overall, the white rice has 0 calories from fat, while the fried rice has 170 calories from fat. White rice also has no sodium, but the fried rice has 830mg—about one third of the recommended daily limit for a healthy adult. But brown rice is healthier than white rice right? It is—but in an unhealthy recipe, changing one ingredient does not instantly erase the numerous health woes caused by salt, oil, and goodness knows what else.

The above case is a perfect example of a health halo. Essentially, it’s an undeserved ‘healthy’ reputation derived from a buzzword or crafty marketing. In this case, the casual diner is led to believe that, just because the dish is made with brown rice, it is the healthier choice. As we have demonstrated, this is simply not the case.

Now, health halos extend far beyond your local fast food joint. They have become a fixture of the food industry’s marketing strategy. Nearly every product is looking to create an aura of health. Take a look next time you’re at the supermarket. You’ll be greeted by a host of health halos such as, “high in antioxidants,” “100% daily vitamin C,” “great source of fiber,” and “gluten free” (even in the case of foods that are naturally gluten free, such as rice or quinoa etc.).

Turning Condiments into Essential Nutrients.

Does marketing with health halos really work? A few years ago, I was eating lunch with a group of people. An older man in the group began explaining that all the men in the group needed to eat ketchup 3 times a week. Ketchup, he claimed, helped to prevent prostate cancer.

I did a little research and it turns out that he was talking about lycopene—which is a beneficial phytonutrient. If you’ve ever heard of lycopene, chances are good that it was brought to your attention by the ketchup industry. They are actively promoting ketchup as a great source. Does lycopene make ketchup seem healthier?

The truth is we can get lycopene from other sources, without the added sugars, fillers, chemicals, and preservatives ketchup contains. Lycopene was actually discovered when researchers were studying why Italian men had lower rates of prostate cancer compared to the surrounding countries. What were Italians doing differently than their neighbors? They discovered that tomatoes, when cooked, contain large amounts of lycopene. (When cooked, the lycopene content in tomatoes experiences a major increase.) So the pasta loving Italians were getting their fair share. Other sources include certain red fruits and vegetables such as watermelon, pink grapefruit, or red bell peppers.

So nothing changed in ketchup recipes. Lycopene has always been found in ketchup. The lycopene just gave ketchup—an otherwise calorically dense, nutritionally empty food—a healthy halo.

Call It as You See It

There’s a saying: “You can’t put lipstick on a pig.” That may be true, but food manufactures are getting good at slathering lipstick on their proverbial pigs. Too many of us see the lipstick and not the pig.

Let’s get to the root of the issue. Buzz aside—lets make it a goal to evaluate foods for what they really are. Is the food you are thinking about buying healthy? Chances are, if the food you are buying (and eating) is fresh and unprocessed, it will do more to benefit your body than anything you’ll find in a box. Healthy food should be easily identifiable. If the food is trying too hard to sell itself, it may be better to avoid it. Nothing is too good to be true… if something looks like a health halo, it probably is.

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Jon Ewald, MD

Jon Ewald grew up in Minnesota and has a love for the outdoors. He obtained his medical degree at Loma Linda University, graduating in 2020. He is currently completing his residency in Radiology at University of Pittsburgh.

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