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The halo effect

Marketers often push the limits when it comes to promoting their products

The 'halo effect'
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Recipe: Marvelous muffins

Four Weeks of Healthy Menus

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, January / February 2015

Grocery shoppers will notice that manufacturers often design their product labels with words and pictures that imply health benefits where few exist.

This is known as the "halo effect," a marketing strategy used to sell products based on the consumer's desire to eat well.

Examples of this are easy to find in the grocery store. Think of nacho chips that say "made with vegetables." The nacho chips may have a trace of vegetables but they are not necessarily nutritious.

The federal government has regulations around labelling, including the nutrition facts table and the ingredients list. Even so, some companies are adept at using labelling tricks that cause consumers to arrive at false conclusions about the food they buy.

Here are a few examples:

Fortified drinks

There are drinks found in the juice aisle with pictures of fruit on the label advertising that they are fortified with vitamin C. Without a close look, consumers may not notice that these drinks contain as much sugar as regular pop, and that they are not real juice.

The word "juice" cannot be printed on the label unless it is truly juice. Watch for words like drink, punch and beverage. These words are used instead of the word juice when the product isn't real juice.

Fruit inside

The manufacturers of certain candy will sometimes advertise the fact that their product contains real fruit. So a label might say, "Fruit source with 100 per cent fruit bites," suggesting that one serving will provide two servings of fruit.

What isn't clear, unless you look at the nutrition facts table, is that one serving also contains five-and-half teaspoons of sugar, which will stick to the teeth and promote tooth decay.

Another bold claim is that one serving of a particular type of candy is a source of fibre and potassium. Yet a close inspection of the nutrition facts table reveals that this particular product has a mere two grams of fibre and only six per cent of the day's required potassium.

Yonis Freedhoff, an assistant professor of Family Medicine at the University of Ottawa and the Medical Director of the Non-Surgical Bariatric Medical Institute, notes that 80 per cent of this product by weight is sugar and 96 per cent of the calories come from sugar. You would need to eat 1.14 pounds of strawberries to equal that amount of sugar.

Bottom line: Don't be fooled by the large, colourful fruit pictures and claims on the package. Candies like these are not a fruit substitute. They are mostly sugar, water and marketing.

Organic labels

Just because a product carries an organic label or has a seemingly healthy name doesn't actually make it healthy. Take a package of soup that carries the round Canadian Organic trademark logo, a designation set out by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency ensuring that the product contains at least 95 per cent organic content. At first glance, this organic chicken soup would seem to be a healthy choice. But is it?

The nutrition facts table on this particular product reveals that a one cup serving has 800 mg of sodium, which is a third of a day's allotment of sodium. That's very high.

Bottom line: The health risks associated with the high sodium in this product are overshadowed by perceived health benefits from the organic products logo.

The power of suggestion

The box says yogurt, fruit and nuts, made with quinoa, oats, wheat and brown rice. The suggestion is that this is a healthy granola bar snack.

A closer look at the nutrition facts table reveals that there is more added sugar in these bars than fruit or nuts, and only one gram of fibre per bar. It's like a cookie.

Another good example of the power of suggestion at work is packaging that focuses your attention on specific attributes.

One manufacturer, for example, uses a "lunchbox checklist" to promote that its pastry-like snacks have no artificial colouring, no trans-fat and are a source of iron. The "checklist" makes it seem as though this product has hit all the criteria for a healthy lunchbox product. Yet a look at the nutrition facts table reveals that one serving of the snack contains six grams of fat, 210 mg of sodium and 14 g of sugar.

Bottom line: Food and nutrition can be complicated by tricky labelling but it is really very simple. All foods are fine in moderation, but look critically at the package. Eat whole, unprocessed foods more often; they don't need a label to convince us of their goodness.

Susan Wehrle is a public health nutritionist with the Winnipeg Health Region.

Wave: January / February 2015

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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