The Health Halo of Popular Brands

Recently, over at The Times-Picayune, registered dietitian Molly Kimball described a phenomenon that affects our food purchases known as the “health halo.”

A brand’s inaugural product may be a great, nutrition-packed addition to your grocery cart, but in many cases, newer products from the same brand may not be such wise purchases. Unfortunately, since we’ve already concluded that the brand is healthy we’re less inclined to question the healthfulness (or lack thereof) in these newer products – hence, the new products benefit from a health halo. Kimball points out a great example of the halo for Fiber One products:

“I love the classic Fiber One Original cereal, nutritionally speaking. With whole grain wheat and corn bran as the primary ingredients and packed with 14 grams of fiber, zero sugar and only 60 calories per serving, it makes one heckuva fiber-packed breakfast…but Fiber One’s Raisin Bran Clusters and Caramel Delight cereals each have more sugar than fiber. And although these cereals still contain whole grain wheat and corn bran, they owe a good percentage of their fiber content to chicory root extract, which hasn’t been shown to provide the same health benefits as whole grain.”

The image above highlights just how harmful the health halo can be. We compiled a list of some popular food brands known for their healthfulness and examined the core nutritional value (part of GoodGuide’s approach to rating foods) across all of the products bearing the brand’s name. While all of the brands had products scoring ten, nearly all of them also had products that scored below 5.

Misattributing products because of the brand health halo could result in the consumption of some very unhealthy products. The first step in avoiding this pitfall is knowing that we’re prone to creating these halos. The second step is taking the time to learn about a new product before buying it, either by reviewing it on GoodGuide or by checking out its nutrition breakdown and ingredient statement.

Are there brands you’ve automatically put in the healthy box, only to discover they may not really belong there?

About Sheila Viswanathan

Sheila Viswanathan focuses on educating individuals on how to make healthier dietary choices. She received her doctoral degree in Nutrition and Public Health from Teachers College, Columbia University and is certified as a registered dietitian.
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