Under the Health Halo

Buy-Fresh-Buy-Local-300x115There is a big difference between working at a Community Supported Agriculture project and at the end of a gigantic retail food supply chain. I’ve recently done both and found there are inevitable problems for the former in the latter. It has to do with the health halo.

“The health halo effect refers to the act of overestimating the healthfulness of an item based on a single claim, such as being low in calories or low in fat,” according to an article in The Guardian.

Humans want a shorthand to navigating recurring life decisions, and often, after recognizing a sign, head down the path to acceptance.

I’ve witnessed multiple instances – more than I can count – of when a feature of a type of food, such as “no sugar added,” is presented, people ask the confirming question, “that means it’s healthy, right?” Consumers seem driven, at least in what they say publicly about it, to search for and purchase “healthy food.”

“The purpose of Buy Fresh Buy Local Iowa is to create a statewide marketing campaign to encourage the connections among locally grown food, the farmers who raise it, and the consumers who eat it,” according to its web site. The campaign has been largely successful.

The campaign’s success, beginning in Iowa in 2003, resulted in checking marketing off the to-do list for small-scale local growers. Hard work in a bucolic setting shielded some from the fact that when consumers seek healthy food options marketing plays a more important role than any single campaign can produce.

Buy Fresh Buy Local has not been enough to compete with vigorous marketing of “USDA organic,” “GMO Free,” “gluten free,” “100% natural,” “fat free,” “sugar free,” “no added sugar” and other healthier option campaigns of large-scale food producers. Big operators have substantial financial resources and invest a lot in advertising, including messaging about features of their products.

While the local foods movement has a recognizable marketing campaign, mega-food companies have relentlessly pursued customers with national campaigns that dominate the consumer culture of our society. They benefit from the health halo as I’ve described it, and from market dominance.

We all want to be healthy because, well… being unhealthy or sick can suck.

Today, Alice Waters will receive the 2014 National Humanities Medal for championing a holistic approach to eating and health, celebrating her integration of gardening, cooking and education. Maybe some of us want to be Alice Waters and join the slow food movement. I know I might.

Most of us don’t feel we have time for the slow food Alice Waters promotes. We look for shorthand markers along the way and settle for what we find available in the market place and in our kitchens.

If we want to eat healthy we often look for the health halo and bask in its glow long enough to make a purchase and get on to the next thing in our lives. This consumer behavior is exactly what mega food companies target in their marketing campaigns.

To “Buy Fresh Buy Local” I would add “grow your own” and “know the face of the farmer.” A CSA can make a business with a couple hundred members because of Dunbar’s number. Gaining broader acceptance in our consumer society will take more than the good idea to buy fresh and local. It will also take more than an image of saintliness.

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