Michal Ofer

Food Freedom Friday Edition 131 - Health-Washing

Michal Ofer
Food Freedom Friday Edition 131 - Health-Washing

It’s not what you think…

For the most part a lot of packaged foods make label claims that imply the product inside of it will improve your health. This may or may not be the case and many claims are downright false and misleading.  

What is Health-washing?

Healthwashing is a term used to describe the activities of companies and groups that position themselves as leaders in healthy lifestyle realm while engaging in practices that may, in reality be contributing to the decline of your wellness. Generally speaking, the standard Western diet has set the groundwork and foundation for producing many of the ailments in our current generation. Health-washing works because so many are overweight or sick and looking for an easy fix to solve these health concerns.

When surveyed about their health perceptions of vitamin-fortified food, it has been observed that when the food package carries a nutrient claim for vitamin fortification, people are:

  • Less likely to look for nutrition information on the Nutrition Facts label
  • More likely to select the product for purchase
  • More likely to perceive the product as healthier
  • Less likely to correctly choose the healthier product.

We are highly susceptible to marketing. In fact, the very name of the study that drew these conclusions is  ‘Vitamin-Fortified Snack Food May Lead Consumers to Make Poor Dietary Decisions.’ Even the title alone implies one may be lured into choosing foods that do not support health as there is a trust and belief about what is written on the package.

This is very powerful.

People are buying into the claims that are proclaimed on food packages and in advertisements because they so desperately want them to work. Marketers keep branding, proclaiming and often completely fabricating health claims on the packaged, processed food being sold. Many of the claims are meaningless, out of context or senseless.

Common Healthwashing Label Claims

·       Low-fat

·       Low calorie

·       Fat-free

·       Sugar-free

·       Natural

·       100% natural

·       Fortified with (Vitamin D, Vitamin C, calcium, etc.)

·       Made with all-natural ingredients

·       Made with real ingredients

·       Made with real fruit

·       Low sodium

·       Low cholesterol

·       Cholesterol-free

·       Source of fibre

·       Source of omega-3s

·       Source of probiotics

·       Provides X% of your recommended daily amount of (protein, fibre, calcium, iron etc.)

·       Free from (this could include artificial colours, artificial flavours, etc.)

·       Gluten-free

·       Dairy-free

·       Vegan

There are many more iterations of the above and additional label claims, but it would be impossible to list them all.

Product label regulations about health claims vary depending on the country. Some terms, like natural, are often completely unregulated and have little to no meaning. The ingredient was once sourced from a naturally occurring item rather than manufactured in a laboratory. This tells you nothing of the manipulating and processing of the ingredient. Remember, arsenic is natural too. Other terms, such as low sodium or low fat, require the product to contain less than a certain number of grams of sodium or fat in order to be able to make the claim on the label.

Health-washing may draw attention to the benefits of a specific nutrient (fortified with calcium, a full serving of omega 3s, etc.) in an attempt to imply their positive impact on your health. Those nutrient attributes do nothing to negate all of the other health-destroying ingredients also contained in that food.

·       Something might be low in sugar or sugar-free but loaded with artificial sweeteners instead.

·       A box of cereal may be free of ‘artificial colours or flavours’ but packed with sugar or sodium.

·       A food may be ‘fat-free’ but full of sugars and artificial ingredients to enhance taste and palatability

Learning how to decipher these claims is confusing and the claims and wording are constantly changing.

How To Avoid Health-Washing

Ensure That Most Of Your Diet Is Not Created From Food In A Package.

Fruits, vegetables, herbs, nuts, seeds and organic and naturally raised animal foods are incredibly nutritious. You typically do not come across ridiculous health claims in the produce aisles. These are the foods that need to be the mainstay of your nutrition plan. These are the foods offering energy, balanced blood sugar levels, reduced inflammation, improved sleep and better gut and bowel function

The Bigger The Claim, The Bigger The Hype.

The bigger the label, the flashier the health claim, the greater the chance of the product being health-washed. Real, whole foods speak for themselves. If a product has a number of flashy health claims on it, proceed with caution and be skeptical - the company may be over-compensating to cover or mask the poor ingredients or attempting to skew perceptions in its favour.

Natural And Organic Do Not Imply Health

Current legislation also means that these claims are now rarely natural or 100% organic.

Just because a food is in a natural foods aisle or health food store does not mean it is healthy or good for you. This is especially true for specialty foods like gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free and the like. Something that is gluten-free could still be packed with sugar, include unhealthy oils or be made from ingredients that can be just as detrimental to your long term health as the removed gluten. With organic foods, examine the labels as some items may only have a certain percentage of organic ingredients as opposed to being entirely organic.

If a label says ‘whole’, or ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ it should be transparent and tell the whole story. Watch out for sneaky tricks like the symbol * on certain ingredients with small print below, which leads to ingredient items that likely have their own list of ingredients.

Read The Ingredient List First.

If you are considering a product on the shelf, it is best to base your choice on what is inside the package rather than what is promised across the outside in big, fabulous, exciting designs. Look to the side or back of the box to read the ingredients first before looking at anything else on the package.

The only part of a label worth reading is the ingredient list. Please read it. If you would be unable to buy each of the ingredients on the list and make the item yourself in your kitchen if you wanted to, then put the box/can/carton/bag down and step away.

Beware Of Natural Flavours & Colouring

Show me a ‘Natural Flavours’ or ‘Natural Colouring’ tree. There is little that is natural about natural flavours and colourings. The origin of these ingredients may have once been a whole food, but the amount of chemical processing they have gone through renders them an entirely different thing.

Ignore The Nutrition Label.

It means absolutely nothing. Worry less about grams of fat or grams of sugars and more about what is actually in the ingredient list. If good fats and oils are present, you are better off eating a food with more calories from fat than from carbs/sugar. The same applies to other macronutrients, where did they come from? It is important to note that the serving sizes listed on labels are usually about enough to feed your pet puppy, so chances are, in reality, you would eat 3x the amount.

Avoid Foods That Carry A Claim Recognized By A Government Organization.

Government dictated health regulations are not always in the best interests of oyur health. (This also applies to the % Daily Value that appear on the nutrition labels.)

Beware Of Ingredient Splitting.

This occurs when certain ingredients are split up so they appear further down the ingredient list. Ingredients on a label are listed by weight. Often food manufacturers will split sugar into glucose, fructose, cane sugar, beet sugar, corn syrup, barley malt, molasses, etc. They use any number of names as well as an assortment of them so that the sugar does not appear as one of the first 3 items on the ingredient list.

Most label claims focus on describing or highlighting certain nutrients in the food, not the actual impact the entire product will have on your health. Start using a critical eye when reviewing the claims on food packages and what they actually mean. Ultimately this will empower you to choose the products and items that are going to best support your optimal wellness.

You may find that once you actually start reading ingredient lists and learn to decipher health-washing claims, you end up putting more products back on the shelf than you place in your cart. This will eventually result in a huge signal to stores and companies that there is a greater desire for real food rather than products gussied up in a fancy package.