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Not so healthy choices

CHOICE says health halos trick consumers into paying a price premium for poor food choices

31 May 2015

A CHOICE investigation has found food companies such as McCain, Weight Watchers, Naturally Good and Mother Earth are serving up health-related marketing messages designed to give their products a halo effect, even though they perform poorly in the health star rating system.    
CHOICE looked at 117 products from frozen meals to muesli bars and found a mixed bag when it came to how health-related marketing messages on pack translated into the products' health star performance.
"Phrases such as 'healthy choice', 'natural', 'made with wholegrains' and 'gluten free' trick consumers into believing a product is healthy when in fact it can be higher in salt, sugar and saturated fat than a product without those claims," says CHOICE spokesperson Tom Godfrey.
"Food manufacturers use messages on pack to persuade consumers that their product is healthier or better than other similar products. This is called the health halo effect and is often used as a marketing tool to entice consumers into paying a premium."
CHOICE analysed the nutritional profile of a range of products marketing themselves as healthy. These products often received the same health star rating as a regular product but came with a hefty price premium.
"When you look at two McCain frozen pasta meals - one promoted with 'healthy choice' branding, images of herbs and claims of wholegrains and chia seeds, and the other with regular company branding - consumers would be forgiven for thinking the first one is a healthier choice," says Mr Godfrey. 
"Surprisingly, both products receive 3.5 health stars, with the 'healthy choice' meal containing more sugars and sodium per 100g and a price premium of 23% per 100g."[1]
"The sad fact is relying on these messages to make informed choices about how healthy a product is can be highly problematic and leave you paying a price premium unnecessarily."
"Unfortunately, some of the biggest and much loved brands use marketing messages to confuse and mislead consumers about what they are eating."
CHOICE also compared Woolworths Select chicken and mushroom risotto with Weight Watchers sweet potato and pumpkin risotto with both products scoring 3.5 stars. However, the Weight Watchers meal comes with an 87% price mark-up per 100g[2]
The health food aisle offers plenty of examples of products basking in the health halo glow. While claims on Naturally Good carob buckwheat crispbread include 'gluten free', 'no added cane sugar', 'no preservatives, artificial flavours or colours' and 'GMO free', it only receives a rating of 0.5 stars.
Similarly, on-pack claims of Mother Earth baked oaty slices - golden oats – boast 'source of fibre', 'wholegrain cereals' and 'no artificial colours or flavours', but the product only scores 1.5 stars. Despite the product name Sun Health and 'gluten free' claim, their macadamia and honey bars only managed 1 star.
In the crackers category, Tuckers Natural gourmet rosemary and rock salt crackers are littered with claims including 'naturally better for you!', 'yeast free', '100% natural' and 'no artificial preservatives, colours or flavours' yet only score 1.5 stars.      
CHOICE has long campaigned for better food labelling and continues to put pressure on major companies to place health stars on their products.  If you want to cut through the marketing hype and see health stars on more products, including McCain's, join our campaign here:

More information on CHOICE's health halo investigation can be found here

About Health Stars
The Health Star Rating scheme was launched in June 2014 by the Federal Government to help consumers make informed choices about the food they purchase in the supermarket. The ratings system is based on energy (kJ), sugar, saturated fat, and sodium. The scheme ranks food products on a scale from 0.5 stars to five stars, allowing you to make healthier choices within a category at a glance.

[1] The McCain Healthy Choice Wholegrains Italian Beef and Chia Meatballs with Wholemeal Spaghetti costs $1.85 per 100g compared to McCain Spaghetti Bolognese at $1.50 per 100g.
[2] The Weight Watchers Roasted Sweet Potato and Pumpkin Risotto costs $1.87 per 100g compared to Woolworths Select Chicken and Mushroom Risotto at $1.00 per 100g.

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