A few weeks ago, The Atlantic published a provocative piece by David Freedman that explored the potential benefits of junk food in the fight against obesity. While I readily agree with his principle thesis – that if all of our regularly consumed processed and restaurant foods were replaced with lower- calories versions then, on paper, that ought to help improve our waistline – my struggle stems from the fact that, in practice, consumer psychology is going to play a role. And it would seem that when it comes to dietary decisions, our brains are extremely strange places.
And therein lies the rub as these marketing messages, dubbed by Brian Wansink and Pierre Chandon as "health halos," may paradoxically lead these on-paper "healthier" products to be overly consumed or even, bizarrely, more readily ignored.
The first study highlighting the health halo phenomenon was published in 2005 when Wansink and Chandon used it to describe the impact of front-of-package content claims on consumption patterns. Their now famous experiment involved low-fat labeled M&Ms, which led study subjects to consume nearly 30 percent more of them - and that was for all of the study's subjects. Looking at just those study subjects with overweight or obesity, the low-fat label led these folks to consume nearly 50 percent more.
As a consequence, were low-fat M&Ms a real thing, their health-halo would have led people to consume more calories than they would have had they chosen the full-strength version, especially folks who already might have had concerns about their weight.
Wansink and Chandon later extended their findings to fast-service restaurants where they determined that consumers of Subway chose more caloric items than consumers of McDonalds. They postulated that the reason therein was due to Subway's greater perceived healthfulness whereupon consumers ordered 30 percent more calories in their sides and beverages when their mains were marketed with the halo of "healthy".
[Read: The Myth of Healthy Processed Food.]
Restaurants' health halos get even more confusing when you consider the counterintuitive phenomenon researchers have referred to as "vicarious goal fulfillment," whereby the mere option of a "healthier" item on a menu led diners to paradoxically be more likely to choose something more indulgent. This presumably was a consequence of simply having the healthier item as an option to "vicariously" feel good about. Using menus that differed only by the inclusion of a "healthier" option, researchers studied ordering patterns. When salads were included on a menu, fries were chosen more frequently. When veggie burgers were highlighted, more bacon cheeseburgers were purchased. When 100-calorie packs of Oreos were available for dessert, more people opted for chocolate covered ones.
Of course, even if you brush aside these concerns, there's still more to be troubled about regarding processed foods serving as our dietary mainstays. That's not because of scary sounding chemicals, but rather because science has yet to uncover why it is that certain patterns of whole food consumption carry with them risks or benefits.
While there are, for instance, ample studies that present diets rich in fruits and vegetables as protective against various chronic diseases, we unfortunately don't know what's in them that's providing us with their benefits. Sure, we may have some educated guesses as to what makes different foods risky or healthful, but for the most part we're truly still guessing.
[Read: Fortified Junk Foods are Still Junk.]
There's also some evidence to suggest that the calories our bodies are able to extract from processed foods are higher than those they're able to extract from whole food equivalents, which, in turn, might lead to weight gain if processed foods are relied upon more readily – even if, on paper, the total calories in your diet went down, not to mention the fact that those same processed foods may not be as filling, consequent to their highly refined states, leading you to struggle with hunger more regularly. And, generally, we don't make the wisest choices when we're hungry.
Personally, I don't think processed foods are going to be big players in improving our weights or our health. Healthful eating isn't simply about more (or, in this case, less) of a few specific nutrients, nor is consumer behavior simple to predict as, when it comes to health halos, the research to date suggests it's both counterintuitive and perhaps even downright bizarre.
Undoubtedly, processed foods are here to stay. Were the food industry to make lower-calorie options more readily available, then those options may well be beneficial for those who truly take the time to carefully evaluate their diet's nutrition and caloric breakdowns. They won't, however, help the average, harried consumer in our currently overhyped marketplace.
And here I'd venture Freedman and I would agree that for processed foods to have the best chance at benefiting our collective waistline, we're going to need to see regulations that dial down the food industry's existing marketing leeway – as today's playing field between the food industry and the consumer is anything but level.
Ultimately, without greater regulatory protection, consumers may well be led by food industry health halos to overly consume these less-bad-for-you products, to permitting themselves to eat out more often and then, perhaps strangely, to increased orders of vicariously goal-fulfilled French fries.
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Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him on Twitter @YoniFreedhoff. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book, The Diet Fix: Why Everything You've Been Taught About Dieting is Wrong and the 10-Day Plan to Fix It, will be published by Random House's Crown/Harmony in 2014.