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Who’s hoodwinked by a healthy halo?

20-Apr-2009

What does health taste like? As a kid, I was encouraged to hold my nose and swallow down broad beans and cod-liver oil. If they tasted bad, it was only ‘cos they were good for me.

But nowadays that twisted rationale seems a little out of date. Broad beans may still taste bad to me, but we can have our healthy foods in other forms – and enjoy them too.

At FoodNavigator we have noticed a trend amongst flavour firms for new collections they say are inspired by the trend for healthier eating, like green tea, goji, and pomegranate, to name a few. But unlike the foods they mimic or stem from, the flavours don’t have any health benefits themselves.

Instead, they form part of a food’s healthy halo. A shimmering aura of a goodness and nutrition. “Eat me, and be well,” they seem to say.

That’s all very well if the food beneath the halo is healthy too. A product with active levels of green tea catechins, for example, may need a helping hand from a flavour to make it taste of tea.

But what about green-tea flavoured cake, or cranberry candy? The halo could eclipse the high fat or sugar content.

Right now, nutrient profiling is a hot topic in the EU, as law-makers put their heads together to come up with levels of negative nutrients over which a food would be barred from making a positive health claim.

It makes sense that a company should not make a health claim for a food that is loaded with omega 3, say, or polyphenols, if it also dishes up two-thirds of the recommended max of added sugar or saturated fat for the day.

Healthy halos are somewhat subtler. There is no actual health claim, nor any science. But the product and its marketing are devised to appeal to consumers who pay attention to their health. They may be more likely to choose a blueberry flavoured ice-cream, for instance, over a chocolate flavoured one.

It would be a step too far to suggest that nutrient profiles govern food flavours as well as functional foods. But even if there is no regulatory call, industry needs to remember its responsibility.

When asked, flavour firms are very clear that their flavours cannot actually make a food healthier. But one cannot help but wonder just what their intentions are.

Both flavour firms and the manufacturers they serve should be doing all they can to promote healthy eating – not fudging the issue and using consumers’ best intentions against them.

Consumers, too, have to wise up. It we are really serious about healthy eating, we’ll adjust our fruit-detectors to home in on nutrition labels, and not seek thin excuses to eat for fat-laden foods.

Now, if anyone is thinking of launching a new, healthy halo broad bean flavour…. bad idea, I say.

Jess Halliday is editor of award-winning website FoodNavigator.com. Over the past twelve years she has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States. If you would like to comment on this article, please email jess.halliday'at'decisionnews.com

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