The “Health Aura”

Yesterday I was cooking a lamb ragu that’s not especially healthy. It kept running through my head that maybe I should also make some brussel sprouts on the side to make it healthier. But of course it doesn’t really work that way; the quantity of fat or calories or whatever in a pasta sauce isn’t negated by adding a side dish of vegetables. Still, just about everyone falls into that kind of trap now and again and I think everyone who’s not a Chicago School economist understands how this works. But this finding (via Ezra Klein) is truly weird. It seems that the mere presence of a salad on a fast food menu makes people more likely to order french fries.

The causal mechanism that Keith Wilcox, one of the report’s authors, gave to The New York Times doesn’t strike me as super-compelling: “When you consider the healthy option, you say, well, I could have that option. That lowers your guard, leading to self-indulgent behavior.” The measured effect in their study, however, is not a small one so it would be interesting to see if this result can be replicated elsewhere. The study will be out soon in The Journal of Consumer Research.


The Food Politics blog remarks labels this phenomenon “health aura” and says it “explains a lot about current food marketing trends” such as how I “may have noticed that vitamins, antioxidants, and omega-3’s are added to everything these days.” That kind of marketing gimmick, however, seems like a much cruder thing. People have heard that omega-3s are good for you, so you take a product that’s not good for you, put some omega-3s in it, and slap a big graphic on your box, thus implying that your omega-3 enhanced Fritos are health food. If I’m reading it right, this new study is saying that you could sell more Fritos just by putting them on the shelf adjacent to something that really is healthy.