Health buzzwords like ‘protein’, ‘paleo’ and ‘organic’ are used by marketers as key selling points for many of today’s health products. Yet these words can also trick consumers into believing a product is healthier than it really is.
Inaccurate health messages can be dangerous as they:
- don’t help to educate consumers to make informed health decisions, and
- are often in conflict with the credible, accurate health information we write.
Health perceptions and myths
To ensure consumers make healthier choices, it’s our obligation as health writers to understand the misinformation in the industry – so we can break down false perceptions and demystify health information.
Nutritional information conveyed in food advertising is one aspect of health information that can be misleading.
Nutrient content claims can affect perception and influence consumer judgement about healthy food.
Single nutritional claims can also give deceptive information, known as a ‘health halo’ effect in food advertising.
What is a ‘health halo’ effect in food advertising?
A ‘health halo’ occurs when a single health claim causes a consumer to have positive impressions of the product.
The ‘health halo’ affects impression formation and judgement in consumers, changing their perceptions of the overall healthfulness of certain foods.
Health halos in food advertising can occur from short messages on food packaging about the health benefits of grocery items.
The US FDA has described front-of-package messages as a provider of key nutrient information that can be quickly and easily interpreted by consumers. 
For example, product labels containing the words ‘low fat’, ‘organic’ and ‘gluten-free’ are often incorrectly perceived as healthy choices and play a key role in consumer purchasing behaviours.
These words play on society’s focus on the quantities of nutrients in foods as a marker of health status.
Study highlights the impact of ‘health halos’ from food packaging
US researchers recently studied the front-of-package labelling on protein pars for its ‘health halo’ effect on healthfulness perceptions. 
The New York research team investigated health halo effects of a product defined by its healthy nutrient (‘protein bar’) and its nutrient content claim (‘good source of protein’).
The researchers found these products were perceived as having an increased protein content and as healthier overall.
The researchers also noted that the title ‘protein bar’ significantly altered the perception of the healthiness of the food.
The word ‘protein’ in the title increased perceptions of fibre and iron, demonstrating the health halo effect of nutrient information from the package label ‘protein bar’.
How can we lessen the impact of these misleading health messages?
The halo effect theory predicts consumers tend to overgeneralise from specific health claims, particularly when claims relate to positive perceptions.
However, in the food industry, it is difficult for consumers to differentiate and make healthy choices between products when there is wide variation in serving sizes and nutritional value.
It’s up to us, as credible health writers, to counter health myths such as health halos in our writing.
Whether we’re writing on social media or blog posts, we need to ensure we always address possible preconceptions in health.
We need to be aware that these so-called buzzwords can cause a consumer to believe a product is healthier than it actually is.
This doesn’t mean we should be avoiding the words such as organic or paleo diets – it means we need to make sure our audience understand the meaning and appropriate contexts of these health terms.
By addressing perceptions and myths, we can collectively improve the quality of available health information and help consumers make informed health decisions.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA). (2013). Guidance for industry: A food labeling guide. Retrieved fromhttp://www.fda.gov/ Food/GuidanceRegulation/ GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ ucm2006828.htm
- Fernan C. Schuldt J.P. & Niederdeppe J. Health halo effects from product titles and nutrient content claims in the context of “protein” bars Health Communication 2017;1-9