Low-calorie, all-natural, fat-free - these are just a few typical food claims you can see in many products at your local supermarket. But what do they mean? Are they reliable? Or is it just all marketing, with the primary goal to sell more?
In this article, you will learn how to read past common claims and learn what healthwashing is and how to avoid it. First off, let's start with the main question: What exactly is healthwashing?
What Is Healthwashing?
Healthwashing is a term that describes when a company makes its product (typically food) appear healthier than it is.
Additionally, healthwashing can be a harmful practice because the products that are promoted as something healthy - aren't; and, in fact, can even degrade your health. Healthwashing terms can also appeal to people who care about their health or are concerned about health issues.
The use of Healthwashing may often draw attention to the benefits of a nutrient to make you believe it is good for your health, but those products often contain ingredients that aren't healthy for you.
For example, a box of cereal that contains various vitamins on its label but, on deeper inspection, is also packed with sugar, sodium, and artificial colorings. Another example is a product advertised as sugar-free but, in reality, is packed with artificial sweeteners and refined oils.
Types of Healthwashing
In healthwashing, food and supplement labels may be misleading about their contents by their manufacturers. Health claims on food labels can be separated into three main groups:
Health - Describe a relationship between food and reduced disease risk or health-related condition risk. For example, "soluble fiber to help reduce heart disease risk."
Nutrient content - Describe the level of a nutrient in the product, describe general well-being from consumption of a nutrient or dietary ingredient using terms such as "free," "high," and "low," or if compared to another product, using words such as "more," or "reduced."
Function - Describe general well-being from the consumption of a nutrient or dietary ingredient and how it is intended to affect the regular operation of the human body, such as "calcium builds strong bones."
Real Examples of Healthwashing
1. Vitamin Water
VitaminWater is sugar water with added vitamins, owned by Coca-Cola. The product was labeled it has vitamins that boost immunity and reduce the risk of disease and contained words like "defense," "rescue," "energy," and "endurance."
Red Bull says in its marketing that the drink will give you "wings" and "boost" your energy, which can even improve concentration and reaction speeds.
However, those claims were false and were lacking any scientific support.
In 2014, the company agreed to pay out more than $13 million after settling a US class action lawsuit that accused Red Bull of making false and misleading advertising claim.
3. La Croix
La Croix is an American brand of sparkling water. In 2018, it came under a lawsuit claiming it mislabels its water as "natural," where the actual ingredients were synthetic.
There have reportedly been hundreds of lawsuits over using the word "natural" on food products in the last couple of years.
It is a massive problem because natural label claims have no industry standard or regulation.
4. Nature Valley Granola Bars
Nature Valley granola bars promote themselves as "100% natural". However, the company's popular granola bar contained trace amounts of the weed-killing chemical glyphosate.
After a lawsuit filed by three consumer groups and failing to reveal the presence of the chemical in their bars, General Mills said it would stop labeling its Nature Valley granola bars as "100% natural."
5. Very Berry Cheerios
Very Berry cheerio's label includes the following claims:
Flavoured With Real Fruit
No Artificial Flavours
No Artificial Colours
The main insinuation here is that this cereal has natural fruit, but you get strawberry, cranberry, blueberry, and raspberry powders.
But when you look at the ingredient list, "real fruit" means powders from berries, and the cereal is also packed with sugar, corn syrup, preservatives, and canola oil.
Most Common Healthwashing labels
There are many more examples, and subtle health washing products, that use the following label claims:
Made with all-natural ingredients
Made with real ingredients
Made with real fruit
No trans fat
Source of fiber
Source of omega-3s
Source of probiotics
Free from artificial colors
Free from artificial flavors
Baked, not fried
Provides XX% of your recommended daily amount of…
The use of these labels does not mean a brand is healthwashing. For example, every product featured in DeliciousDoor's Snack Box is strictly vetted to ensure it is genuinely a more healthy snack alternative.
How To Avoid Healthwashing?
Some terms, like "natural", are completely unregulated and don't have much meaning.
Sometimes, certain products can be genuinely healthy. Yet, because there are so many misleading claims on different food items, it can be confusing and hard to know if the labeling is accurate or just "healthwashing."
Here are five easy and powerful tips on how to avoid healthwashing:
1. Buy Fresh Produce & Dry Food
Cut the amount of packaged food you buy. While if it is something you are used to, it will be a bit challenging, with time, it will get easier.
Focus on buying fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, and nuts. Then, you can create excellent meals, snacks, and desserts using whole foods.
Whatever your diet is, the more local and seasonal produce you consume, the more nutrient-dense your diet will be.
2. Always Read The Ingredients
Product ingredients are listed by quantity - from highest to lowest amount. So, that means the first ingredient on the list is what the manufacturer used the most.
Pay attention to the order of ingredients. Avoid products containing refined sugar, hydrogenated oils (trans fat), sodium nitrate/nitrite, food colorings, artificial flavoring, carrageenan, guar gum, etc.
A clean ingredient list means you will be able to buy each ingredient and be able to create the product easily.
If the ingredients are some weird words you don't know how to pronounce and what they mean, it is probably best to avoid buying that product.
3. The Shorter The Ingredient List - The Better!
As a rule of thumb, the shorter the ingredient list is, the healthier the product is.
For example, you imagine you have the following granola options:
While making homemade granola will always be healthiest, the first option from those two products is better - fewer ingredients, almost all from organic farming, and less sugar.
Try to buy products that are rich in nutrients, fresh & unprocessed, limited in sugar & sodium, and contain no saturated and trans fat.
4. Beware Of "100% Natural" Or Similar Healthwashing Labels
Usually, more claims equal healthwashed products. That's because if a product is genuinely natural, there won't be the need to prove it by adding "100% natural", "healthy," "Made With Real Ingredients," Free From…", etc.
Additionally, sometimes a product may be advertised as healthy but contain other unhealthy ingredients.
For example, if something is "gluten-free," that doesn't mean it is healthy; it may be packed with sugar, oil, and artificial sweeteners.
5. Buy Better
Not all fat or all sugar is bad. You can still consume them, but the source matters.
For example, the "good fats" are the unsaturated and omega-3 fats. These fats come from plants, such as - nuts, flaxseed, olive oil, and avocado.
Furthermore, sugars occur naturally in fresh fruits and dates and are typically present along with fiber and starch.
These natural sources of sugar are more complicated molecules, take longer to digest, are more sustained energy sources, and are much healthier.
Knowing which companies and products genuinely care about selling healthy products can be tricky.
It gets even worse when most commercials have specific claims, which can be very misleading while still technically accurate.
That's why you must constantly research and find companies you can trust, with great values that align with yours.
If you want to discover new & REAL healthy snacks, we have great news!
At DeliciousDoor we curate premium-quality health-focused Snack Boxes from brands who aren't healthwashing, instead using 100% plant-based ingredients from quality sources.