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Food Sick

Food Sick: Busting the Health Halo Effect

Written by: James McCann

Reviewed by: Emily J., MSc RD

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6 minutes

When you see claims such as “natural” and “organic” on food labels, it’s often part of something called the “health halo effect” — a marketing strategy used by Big Food to create the perception that a food is healthy, even where there’s no evidence to support it.

In an ever-changing food market, it’s critical to understand which products are healthy and which are not — regardless of flashy packaging or persuasive health claims. 

Even though a food product may be advertised as “healthy” doesn’t necessarily mean it is. This marketing strategy and use of nutrition trends and buzzwords (such as “organic,” “fat-free,” and “refined sugar-free”) produce a health halo effect that commonly misleads consumers into thinking they’ve made a healthier choice when that’s not necessarily the case. 

This can pose a challenge if your health goal is to eat foods that improve your metabolic health. But just how do you demystify food packaging to make informed, health-conscious decisions about the products you’re buying? How do you avoid falling victim to the health halo effect?

What Is the Health Halo Effect?

The health halo effect is any kind of labeling or marketing that gives the perception that a particular food is good for you even when there is little or no evidence to support this claim [1]. 

While not always created with the intention to deceive, food manufacturers often use the health halo to influence consumers’ purchasing decisions. Research on front-of-package (FOP) labeling shows that nutrient content claims (such as, “organic,” “sugar-free,” etc.) can generally influence consumers to perceive foods as healthier [1]. Because of this, it’s important to identify and analyze marketing strategies like FOP labeling and understand the overall nutritional value of the food product. 

Examples of Common Health Halo Terminology

Health halo terms are everywhere, but most people actually don’t know what they mean. This is by design: the words are deliberately vague and empty so that you overestimate how healthy a food or beverage is based on a single “positive” health claim.


According to a Pew Research poll, more than 55% of the U.S. population believes that organic produce is better for you than conventional produce, even though it’s often more expensive [1]. But what does organic even mean?

At its root, organic agriculture aims to maintain and improve the health of the environment (the ecosystems where food is grown) and all the living organisms involved in the growth and consumption of these foods. (This includes the tiny organisms in the soil and human beings alike) [2]. 

With this in mind, there are good reasons to choose organic for health and environmental concerns. However, labeling a food “organic” doesn’t simply imply that the product is nutritious or healthy, and the term isn’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Organic foods are also hard to come by in many areas of the U.S., where millions of Americans lack access to fresh produce, organic or not.

While it may be tempting to think that organic foods are, at the very least, less processed, the truth is that there are plenty of ultra-processed foods that bear the organic stamp but can wreak havoc on your metabolic health. Reese’s, for instance, makes an organic peanut butter chocolate cup that has 13 grams of sugar per serving — less than the 22 grams in its non-organic counterpart, but still more than a third of the daily recommended sugar intake [3]. At the end of the day, candy is candy. While an option with lower sugar may be better for you, the candy coming from organic sources doesn’t make it a healthy food. 


While “gluten-free” is a voluntary claim that manufacturers may choose to use in the labeling of their foods, any food product bearing a “gluten-free” claim has to comply with FDA regulations. The label provides consumers with a standardized mechanism for managing their health and dietary intake – particularly those with celiac disease, a chronic immune disorder triggered by the digestion of gluten, a mixture of proteins that are naturally found in certain grains, including wheat, rye, and barley [4]. 

Even though gluten-free labeling serves as an essential tool for those who have difficulty digesting gluten, it doesn’t signify a healthy product. With more and more people adopting a gluten-free diet even if they don’t have celiac (about 25% of the American population), food brands are taking advantage of the trend and associating a GF label with “healthy” and wheat with “unhealthy” [5]. 

Despite this, gluten-free alternatives to common foods like bread and crackers are often less healthy from a metabolic perspective. That’s because gluten tends to be replaced by processed carbs (like tapioca flour and white rice flour) that have a high glycemic index, which can result in bigger glucose spikes — meaning that it’s not necessarily a healthier option for people who don’t have celiac disease.


According to the FDA, the term “natural” means that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives, even if they’re from a natural source) has been added to a food that wouldn’t normally contain that ingredient [6]. So natural beef jerky, for instance, means that there are no preservatives or artificial ingredients added to the beef — often the package will say that it doesn’t contain nitrates and nitrites. But in other cases, “natural” is a free-for-all word. One example of this is natural peanut butter — which is often used to describe peanut butter that only includes peanuts (and sometimes salt) as the ingredient. But that doesn’t prevent brands like Skippy from including ingredients like palm oil, sugar, and salt in their natural peanut butter. 

The FDA also doesn’t consider whether the term natural should describe any nutritional or other health benefits. Despite this, consumers repeatedly use this lingo when shaping their dietary choices — making it a prime example of the health halo effect. In fact, a 2016 survey found that 73% of consumers chose foods and beverages marked as “natural” — up from 59% in 2014 [7].

Research has also indicated that consumers are completely misinformed about what natural means [8]. In 2014, 85% of those surveyed believed that natural produce was free of pesticides and GMOs, even though the term can be used to describe non-organic, GMO produce. Similarly, animals raised with growth hormones can be called natural, despite 70% of consumers believing that this isn’t the case.

Busting the Health Halo

To bust the health halo, it’s critical to understand which foods are generally better for your health and evaluate other areas of food packaging, particularly the ingredients list and nutrition facts panel (NFP). These strategies will allow you to navigate through the noise of FOP labeling and help you make informed, health-conscious dietary choices. 

Avoid Ultra-Processed Foods

Not all processed foods are bad — canning, jarring, pasteurizing, and freezing are all forms of processing, so technically almond butter and frozen berries count as processed foods. 

It’s ultra-processed foods, or UPFs (which are typically high in sugar, fat, salt, and artificial coloring) that you want to avoid. UPFs tend to be rich in refined carbs, fat, and other ingredients that are manufactured for maximum palatability and minimal satiety — making you want to eat more and more of them, without ever feeling “full.” 

UPFs are landmines for our metabolic health because can make our blood glucose levels skyrocket, which can leave us craving sugar to stabilize our levels and, over time, lead to insulin resistance, lethargy, weight gain, and more. Traditional Westernized diets, which tend to be high in processed meats, refined grains, salt, and sugar, are directly linked to the rise in chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes, obesity, and cognitive impairment. 

Many UPFs use health halo terminology to cloak the actual ingredients they contain. For example, some popular breakfast cereals like Raisin Bran, Honey Nut Cheerios, Corn Flakes are no longer allowed to market themselves as “healthy” after the USDA proposed a new definition for the term in 2022 because they don’t meet certain sugar and sodium limits or contain enough whole grains.

Shop for Colorful Vegetables and Fruits

Instead of letting Big Food’s deceptive marketing trick you into buying a certain food or beverage, try sticking to the edges of the grocery store, where the fresh produce is. 

Colorful fruits and vegetables can give your body energy — they’re rich in antioxidants, phytochemicals, flavonoids, and polyphenols — all of which have been shown to provide protective or disease-preventive properties and improve your body’s ability to regulate glucose. They’re also a great source of dietary fiber, which promotes the feeling of satiety and has beneficial effects on gut health, postprandial (post-meal) glucose levels, insulin sensitivity, and more.

Learn How to Read Food Nutrition Labels

Learning how to understand and use the Nutrition Facts label can help you make healthier eating choices and identify nutrient-dense foods for a healthy diet. This is especially important since many consumers have difficulty interpreting nutrition labels, a form of inadequate health literacy that has been associated with adverse health outcomes, such as poor health status, poor health management, more frequent emergency department visits, and unhealthy diets [9]. 

When examining a nutrition facts label, it’s best to:

Start with the serving information on the top 

Limit certain ingredients

Look out for added sugar

Aim for high fiber

Key Takeaways

We are all victims of Big Food’s health halo marketing strategies, but by increasing your awareness of their tactics and learning how to decipher if a product is healthy or unhealthy, you’ll be empowered to make choices that will make you feel your best and increase your metabolic healthspan.



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