We Eat Food, Not the Package : Some Thoughts on Health Halos

Did you catch Dr. Connelly’s latest column over at HuffPo: “Diet Soda and Your Teeth: A Healthy Mix?”

Though I’ve already written a couple times now about the damage soft drinks can do to tooth enamel, I wanted to bring his column to your attention because it provides a good warning against the illusion that diet pop is somehow healthier. In fact, in some ways, it could even be worse for your teeth – and for one simple reason:

People tend to drink a lot of it. I will admit that the above “enamel-wearing” points are as pronounced with regular soda as it is with diet pop (again, I’m trying to use “soda” and “pop” both to be inclusive!) [sic] But the big issue with diet soda is the fact that people think it’s healthier, and thus, tend to drink more of it. It’s all about calories, and everything else is forgotten. I don’t know how many times I have heard “I’m addicted to diet coke” (et. al.) [sic] from a patient. I know I sound like a stern librarian, but I have to be honest – that stuff is the worst stuff you can drink. Even though it has sugar, I’d almost rather see people drink regular pop, because I’m convinced that one or two regular pops are less damaging than seven of the diet version (again, people who drink diet soda tend to drink a lot of it). But truthfully, I’d rather see people drink neither. [emphasis added]

The fact that people drink a lot of diet soda also means they are very likely drinking less of other (healthier) beverages. To give an example, according to one study , in 1966, the average American drank 20 gallons of soft drinks and 33 gallons of milk. But in 2003, those numbers were not just reversed, but the soft drinks took an additional big leap as well (46 gallons of soft drinks and 22 gallons of milk). Milk has its own detractors, but one must admit that milk also contains a lot of nutrients – protein, vitamins and calcium (we dentists like calcium). Diet soda? Not so much.

OK, I’m not looking to advocate milk here (not yet, anyway). But if you are looking for something to drink, what’s wrong with drinking just plain old water?

Indeed: The only ingredient in soft drinks that your body actually does need is water. It’s involved in every bodily function. Consequently, we can’t go much longer than a week without the stuff – water is life – and what we don’t get from food we need to drink. It’s also available right from the tap and at a fraction of the cost of soft drinks, though I do recommend filtering it. But even then, a filtering pitcher and a year’s worth of replacement filters is still cheaper than buying just one generic bottle of soda per week for a year. Think, too, of the money you’ll save on dental bills!

The issue Dr. Connelly points to is akin to what’s known as the “health halo,” which materializes when one positive quality of a food affects our perception of the whole. It’s what gets a person to believe, for instance, that a presweetened cereal made with whole grains is healthier than the kind made with refined flour, despite it’s being just as loaded with sugars, artificial colors and other additives. One recent study of front-of-box nutrition claims shows health halos at work.

The scientists said the front-of-box claims misled the participants in two ways.

Firstly, consumers inferred that the products presented were more nutritious than other cereals, even though these products were “below average in overall nutritional quality.”

Secondly, they inferred that claims had broader meanings than their literal interpretation.

The scientists said 44 per cent of participants thought nutrition-related claims meant the cereal contained higher nutrition levels compared to other brands of children’s cereal.

You can read more about the study here.

Other recent research similarly shows how we often “eat the package” rather than the product. For this study, subjects were asked to taste test “organic” and “conventional” versions of three different foods: cookies, yogurt and potato chips.

Confirming Lee’s health halo hypothesis, the subjects reported preferring almost all of the taste characteristics of the organically-labeled foods, even though they were actually identical to their conventionally-labeled counterparts. The foods labeled “organic” were also perceived to be significantly lower in calories and evoked a higher price tag. In addition, foods with the “organic” label were perceived as being lower in fat and higher in fiber. Overall, organically-labeled chips and cookies were considered to be more nutritious than their “non-organic” counterparts.

One product that’s recently developed a halo is sea salt, which – according to an American Heart Association survey – 61% of consumers think is a “low-sodium alternative” to table salt. It’s not. In reality, the only real difference between the two is that sea salt is less processed. This, according to John Franklin, Cargill’s marketing manager for salt (yes, there really is such a position!), may explain consumers’ mistake.

Sea salt naturally contained beneficial minerals that were stripped out of table salt such as magnesium, calcium and potassium, but its biggest USP [unique selling proposition] was its unprocessed image, said Franklin.

“Consumers perceive it as healthier, more natural, more premium and better tasting because it’s less refined. It’s just evaporated by the sun and wind. It’s seen as the wholegrain of salts.”

For a detailed discussion of sea vs. table salt, see this terrific guest post at Fooducate.

The moral of the story? Ignore the front of the package; read the ingredients and nutrition info instead. And if you decide to consume the product, do in moderation.

Images by julesreyes and marymactavish, via Flickr

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