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Gee, isn't it great that some companies donate some of their profits to charity, help find homes for lost dogs, support recycling efforts and use energy-saving LED light bulbs in their factories?

Sure it is, but a new study confirms that such socially responsible activities can create a "health halo" over foods that are really no healthier than competing products. 

"Research demonstrates that consumers frequently engage in inference making when evaluating food products. These inferences can be highly inaccurate, leading to unintended, unhealthy consumer choices," say the authors of a study published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.

The authors asked study participants to make assumptions about the healthfulness of a future granola bar product. The people who were told that the granola bar company had won many awards for its public service predicted that the granola bar would therefore be extremely healthy.

The authors found that this "health halo" encouraged overconsumption and underestimation of calories consumed, adding that the current study could lead to important changes in advertising regulations -- for example, limiting how much information about its social programs a company may include on its food packaging.

The authors say they believe that this and other studies may help raise awareness among those consumers who genuinely want a healthy product, and who don't want their emotions manipulated in ways that lead them to make unhealthy as¬sumptions about food quality.

The study concludes with a warning: "If consumers seeking a healthy diet inaccurately estimate nutritional content of products marketed by firms with strong reputations for corporate social responsibility, it can lead to serious health consequences for both individuals and society."

The authors of the study are John Peloza (University of Kentucky), Christine Ye (Westminster College) and William J. Montford (Florida State University).

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