Are you being “Health washed”?

With all the environmental information and “eco-logos” floating around these days, you may have heard the term “Green washing”. Green washing (or “green whitewash”) “is the practice of companies disingenuously spinning their products and policies as environmentally friendly… It is a deceptive use of green PR or green marketing.” 

Needless to say, green washing has made many consumers leery of products claiming to be greener. People want to know that the products they’re choosing are either making a positive impact on the environment, or at least reducing the negative impact. Unfortunately, as it’s a relatively new area, it can be difficult to tell what’s green washing and what’s a real, environmentally sound product.

Something similar is occurring (and has been for years) in the food industry. Although it doesn’t have a fancy label like “green washing” (other than ‘deceptive’ and ‘misleading’), the food industry runs rampant with false statements intended to convince consumers that they are making a healthier choice than they actually are. Let’s call it: “health washing”. As far as I can tell, this is not a term that’s being used regularly (when I ‘googled’ it, all that came up were websites and videos on hand washing and proper hygiene). Call it what you will – health washing is everywhere. In fact, I’ve blogged about it many times before.

When looking to make a list of examples for this blog post, all I had to do was take a tour around the grocery store, and there was no shortage:

The Heart Check look-a-like symbol on Nestle chocolate bars – an indication of “cremier chocolate” as stated on the website, or a visual gimmick meant to mislead?

Vitamin water – also known as “sugar water”.

Organic cookies/chips/etc. – Sure, a minimal amount of pesticides may be avoided by choosing organic, but I’d be more worried about the fat and sugar.

Cane sugar – “Cane sugar”, “raw sugar”, “organic syrup” are ALL sugar! Cane sugar just sounds fancier.

Natural or “made from natural ingredients”– This has got to be one of the worst offenders. “Natural” is not a regulated term. It means nothing. And, aren’t all ingredients “natural” at one point in time?

My favourite, “hand-torn lettuce” – What benefit does having “hand-torn” over machine chopped lettuce infer? Does it make it taste better? More wholesome?

“Made with real fruit” – Example: fruit leather snacks for kids. They may contain a teeny amount of “real fruit”, but don’t forget about the mass amounts of added sugars in various forms, like sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup (glucose-fructose), corn syrup, etc, that may actually outweigh the amount of “real fruit”.

Individual nutrient claims – Junk foods that are naturally high in certain vitamins or minerals (such as calcium in pudding), or adding nutrients to junk food, doesn’t make it healthy. There is a difference between having some nutritional value, and being a healthy food.  The pudding offers protein and calcium, but also lots of fat and sugar.

Here is the grey area: Companies have the right to advertise healthy aspects of their products; but where  is the line between the right to advertise a healthy aspect of a product, and crossing over into the territory of (deliberating or not) misleading consumers into thinking they’re making a healthy choice? When companies take claims too far, they can get in trouble. I’m reminded of the Kellogg’s cereal scandal in which Kellogg’s claimed that their cereal (high in sugar but with added vitamins) could help boost kids’ immunities (they were later forced to retract these claims). Or, the Activia yogurt scandal in which the company got into trouble for making claims that weren’t backed by solid science. However, most of the time claims fall in the grey area, and with all the hundreds of thousands of food products it’s just too difficult to police. In the meantime, you can learn to spot and avoid “health washing”. Here are some tips:

  • Don’t be won over by the fancy words or images – be skeptical of the terms like “natural” and “made with”. What makes it natural, and does this increase the value of the product?
  • Read labels to make your decisions – a product high in sugar and fat is probably not a good choice, regardless of whether it is made with “cane sugar” and “organic”, or made with corn syrup and conventionally produced. Similarly, when a product claims “no trans fat”, does not mean it’s not high in saturated fat, salt or other not-so-great things.
  • Stick with unprocessed foods as much as possible. Nature makes great tasting, healthy foods that don’t come in misleading packages. There are only so many ways to “health wash” an apple.