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Not all flavors are created equal.

Some distinctive tastes often found in over-the-counter, health-related products—like cherry and mint—carry a positive association or “flavor halo,” said a University of Wisconsin Oshkosh associate marketing professor.

UWO’s Melissa Bublitz is part of a team of researchers that published its findings recently in the European Journal of Marketing from six studies related to the effects of flavor halos that can bias perceptions about the healthfulness of foods and beverages.

Bublitz worked with Nguyen Pham, assistant marketing professor at St. Bonaventure University; and Maureen Morrin, marketing and supply chain management professor at Temple University, on the research article, “Flavor halos and consumer perceptions of food healthfulness.”

Dieters especially struggle with decisions about what to eat amid the myriad of food choices and “abundant temptations,” making them more susceptible to unconscious biases, Bublitz said.

Since over-the-counter health products like toothpaste and cough syrup often are flavored with mint and cherry, respectively, these flavors tend to carry a halo effect.

“For example, when offered the choice between a chocolate brownie and a mint brownie for an indulgence at the end of a day, dieters are more likely to pick the mint option even though both types of brownies contain the same number of calories,” Bublitz explained.

The use of mint to treat digestive ailments dates back to ancient Greece. Today, mint flavoring is found in a myriad of over-the-counter medicinal products from antacid to mouthwash. Other words cues like “natural,” “fresh” and “local” also create health halos that bias perceptions of food.

Bublitz said these flavor halo effects often come into play when dieters are faced with making quick decisions about what to eat.

“We found evidence that dieters are motivated to take short cuts in their decision-making and transfer the flavor halo to indulgent foods and beverages, because they want to reduce their anticipated consumption guilt,” she said.

On a positive note, Bublitz said the research team also found that the halo effect can be mitigated by providing dieters with corrective information to point out that a certain flavoring alone does not make a food healthier to consume.

In addition, encouraging the use of tools to track consumption or sticking to a shopping list can reduce impulse decisions.

“We need to teach willpower and help dieters practice and build up self-control,” Bublitz said.

While their current studies considered flavor halos created by exposure to medicinal products that contain a specific taste, the researchers called for further investigation into ways that flavor halos can be created.

For example, when certain products like coconut water or pomegranate juice become popular with consumers, such trends could contribute to perceptions about healthfulness of the certain flavors.

Bublitz’s overall research program focuses on the intersection of marketing and public policy. She studies such topics as food decision-making, financial decision-making, health and well-being, sustainability, social marketing and nonprofit marketing.

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