Your Supermarket is like a Volcano

by aturne on March 1, 2013


Last year my classmates and I were instructed to brainstorm messages that would help people eat healthier. My personal favorite was “your supermarket is like a volcano.” Almost a year later, it stuck. Every time I’m at the supermarket, the comparison to a volcano cues me to stick to the outskirts of the store. Fruits and vegetables, I’m safe. Closer to the middle that’s filled with chips and cookies, not so much.

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Why is the middle of the supermarket so much of a danger?

The middle of the supermarket, for the most part, tends to host a large amount of processed foods. Next time you’re walking up and down the aisles take a look. We have tons of low fat, low sodium, low carb, low calorie options. For every regular food, there seems to be a diet one to match it. So we’re covered right? Maybe not. New research suggests that how food is labeled presents multiple problems for consumers. 

Health Halos on the Rise

Health halos occur when a consumer sees only one positive element of a food and neglects the other potentially unhealthy elements. Even the most nutritiously savvy person can be duped into overestimating the value of a food for a single health benefit i.e. low fat. For example, Kellogg’s Raisin Bran cereal shows they are a good source of fiber and made with whole grain. Even the word bran sounds healthy. But a single serving has 250mg of sodium. That’s almost 10% of your daily value.

Another consequence of health halos is that it leads you to eat more. You may not eat a single serving of raisin bran (1 cup) instead you eye ball it and end up eating almost double. Researchers demonstrated the effect of health halos in the lab. When participants were told to serve themselves either regular but new color M&Ms or new low fat M&Ms participants ate almost 30% more. Overweight participants tended to eat even more of the low fat M&Ms, increasing their consumption by 47%. Plus these participants assumed they were eating less, even though they were eating more.

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A raisin bran health halo may also influence how you feel about how much cereal you eat. Let’s say you do eat a serving and have almost two cups of cereal. What would you estimate as the calorie content for what you ate? The same researchers found that when offered low fat granola or M&Ms and asked participants how about how many calories they thought were in each, participants believed low fat foods to be lower in calories. On average about 260 calories less.

Researchers also found a trend towards overeating with eating out. They found that eating one healthy thing  made people feel more comfortable adding an unhealthy food to their meal. For example, at Panera you decide to have a salad for lunch and  because you eat healthy you reward yourself with a cookie. Yum! This behavior can actually make you eat more calories than you would with a traditional meal. This isn’t everyone, but it’s a trap that many of us can fall into.

If food labels are deceptive, what can we do?

Healthy eating isn’t something that happens overnight. We lead busy lives and often convenience wins out over spending time preparing meals. 

Potential Policy Changes:

  • More relevant nutrition claims
  • Standardize relevant nutrition claims
  • Change the definition of serving sizes

What you can do:

  • Check the label, does the front match the back?
  • Plan ahead with a food shopping list
  • Read the ingredients, can you pronounce all of them?

Sure this kind of approach to grocery shopping takes work, time and effort. But it doesn’t have to be applied to everything you buy. Maybe you could try taking a closer look at one thing per trip. Or if all else fails, you could just remember my grocery shopping mantra “your supermarket is like a volcano.”

What are some of your healthy grocery shopping tips?


1. Provencher V, Polivy J, Herman PC. 2009. Perceived healthiness of food. If it’s healthy, you can eat more! Appetite. 52(2):340-344.,

2. Wansink B & Chandon P. 2006. Can “Low-Fat” Nutrition Labels Lead to Obesity? Journal of Marketing Research. 43(4): 605-617.

3. Andrews JC, Burton S, Kees J. 2011. Is simpler always better? Consumer evaluations of front-of-package nutrition symbols. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing. 30(2): 175-190. 10.1509/jppm.30.2.175

4. Chandon P & Wansink B. 2012. Does food marketing need to make us fat? A review and solutions. Nutrition Reviews. 70(10)

Tom March 1, 2013 at 1:17 pm

Very interesting discussion and timely article and overall well written. How consumers perceive and more importantly act in relation to labels is a huge issue. Good use of the example with Raisin Bran to illustrate potential halo effects! My understanding is that overall, consumers are downright confused with what they are reading. I question whether (potentially) adding additional label elements (like whether any ingredients are derived from GM sources) is going to actually help them at all in making HEALTHY choices (or just react to pre-conceived notions etc).

Potential right-to-know requirements assume everyone is evaluating the foods they eat and making rational decisions, which as you have very nicely pointed out – they are not (really). As mentioned, education on nutrition is critical. Are health claims not standardized in the US – a “source of fiber”, must contain x amount; and “high source of fiber” must contain X+Y amount. Products with so much of X ingredients can claim that it “contributes to cardiovascular health” etc….?

Please, please do not use the “can you pronounce the ingredient?” mentality – it severely undermines your credibility as a knowledgeable risk communicator. All sorts of things have hard-to-pronounce (for some people) names – eicosapentaenoic acid (healthy fish oil fatty acid) might be hard for someone to pronounce. Should they avoid that?

Good job on the article – labels play an important role in informing consumers, but looks like they really need help interpreting them! Looks like you guys have your work cut out for you. Cutting through to consumers (and making it stick) will be our greatest challenge in dealing with health and disease.

Alex March 3, 2013 at 9:52 am

Hi Tom,

Thank you for your comments. I completely agree that it is difficult to communicate risk and by referencing a simple rule about pronunciation I think I oversimplified the problem. We do eat things are healthy and unhealthy with difficult to pronounce names. It’s a complicated issue and one that warrants further examination. Possibly a future blog post about healthy, yet complex, ingredients? Do you have any suggestions about other ways to communicate understanding ingredients?

I also did some more research on US food label regulations. Currently, the FDA requires that nutrition information be available on most prepared foods. Nutrition labels are usually found on the back or side of a package. However, the information on the front is not subject to such high standards. Since 2009, there has been increased pressure from the FDA for corporations to provide accurate nutrition claims on their products. As a result, over 20 products were issued warnings for false claims such as “healthy” or incorrect nutrition values that violate industry standards.

So yes we have these nutrition standards, but a potential problem is how they are used. For example, to qualify as a reduced calorie food, a product only needs to be 25% less calories than it’s counterpart. Wansick and Chardon propose increasing this to 35%. This could potentially create more accurate advertising on front of packages or more heavily processed foods that seek to meet the new requirements. I’m honestly not sure what the answer is. I even found myself at the supermarket yesterday grabbing a bag of shredded cheese because it said low fat and neglected to read the back.

I think we do have our work cut out for us as we try and communicate healthy decision making. Plus making it stick!

Virginia March 1, 2013 at 10:49 pm

You could have been tempted to burden your blog too with many facts about food items and their contents such as the excessive amount of sugar,etc. etc.. I did miss the easy access to references within the article. This was very readable and convincing for the general public.

Alex March 2, 2013 at 11:31 am

Hi Virginia,
Thank you for your comment! I’ll be sure to provide easy to access links my sources in future articles. Brian Wansink and Pierre Chadon are the leaders in this field based out of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab @ I recommend checking out their website for further information if you’re interested in the topic.

Chris March 6, 2013 at 8:53 am

I like that “volcano” idea. I think that I do shop most around the perimeter of the grocery store. I wonder how long I could go without stepping into the middle? It would be an interesting challenge.

I do need flour, oats, canned tomatoes,pasta, rice, tea and coffee from the middle.

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Angela April 18, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Hi Alex! I just remembered your post when a friend sent me this link to a German initiative by an organisation called ‘foodwatch’. It is an award for the most brazen, ill-intentioned health claims in food advertising to children. The trophy is called the ‘Goldener Windbeutel’, which translates as ‘Golden Cream Puff’, though in German, the word ‘cream puff’ literally means ‘wind bag’ – basically it’s a trophy for generating ‘hot air’/bulls**t in the food industry. You could run it through a translation engine.
Maybe it would be an idea to have those for adult advertisement as well? I’m sure Americans and Brits could do a better, more scathing/entertaining job at this than Germans!

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