We all try our best to eat healthy and buy nutritious food for our families. But the amount of information, misinformation and just plain marketing speak we’re hit with every trip to the grocery store can make goal hard to achieve. “Many foods contain front of package nutrient claims that make you think you are eating a healthy food,” says Alissa Rumsey M.S., R.D., author of Three Steps to a Healthier You. “This so-called ‘health halo’ often causes people to overeat foods they think are healthy.”
A recent study, published in the Journal of Business Research, supports this theory. Researchers presented two different foods (a cookie and a granola bite) in two different packaging options (an unportioned bag or a bag that contained several individually packaged single-serving packs) to a group of 171 students. What they found is that the granola bites had a powerful health halo that that cookies did not — and that affected how much the students ate. So when faced with a full, unportioned bag of granola bites, the students ate substantially more of them than they did of the cookies. “They perceived the granola to be a healthier snack alternative and chose to eat more of it,” explains Myla Bui, associate professor of marketing, Loyola Marymount University, and lead author of the study. “Consumers are paying less attention to nutrition information and serving sizes and relying instead more on preconceived notions regarding a food’s healthfulness.”
Interestingly, the participants said they would eat about the same amount of cookies or granola bites if eating them from the individually portioned packages. So if you are worried about intake of even seemingly healthy (but in the case of the granola, high in calories and fat) snacks, portion-control servings are the way to go. “For foods that are easy to over-consume, never eat them directly out of a large bag,” advises Rumsey. “Make your own portion-controlled packages by putting a single serving into plastic snack bags or reusable containers.”
Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.