hands being washed under running water

What is Healthwashing?


Two weeks ago, I wrote about why I believe the word superfood is more fiction than fact. Last week, I introduced you to – what I believe – are some true superfoods. The ones that have not been boosted by marketing campaigns and materials. But the fruits and veggies that are awesome, delicious, nutritious and a powerhouse – combined – for our overall health. Why “combined” you might be asking? Because I continue to believe and advocate that health cannot be seen in isolation. Rather, it is a holistic approach encompassing a lot of different aspects. But, I digress. This week, I wanted to finish what appears to have been turned into a “mini-series” with a post on what is healthwashing.

A single strawberry on display against a pale yellow background
Photo by Allec Gomes on Unsplash

What is Healthwashing?

You may have never come across the term “healthwashing” before. So, I wanted to quickly establish the basics before we continue to go further. Meghan Telpner has a great definition on her blog: “Healthwashing is a term used to describe the activities of corporations, companies and groups that position themselves as leaders in the crusade for good health while engaging in practices that may be contributing to our poor health”.

In the Western world, most people tend to get sicker and sicker. And it is very natural, if not human, to want a quick fix for these sicknesses. We want to feel better. We sometimes do not even know how bad we are actually feeling. Simply because we have gotten to be so accustomed with our symptoms that we do not know any different and have accepted symptoms “as is”. Essentially, the status quo. So, naturally, we are drawn to claims that say it boosts an intake “x, y, and z” or it supports “problem a, b, c”.

A man in a supermarket comparing two apples
Photo by Raquel MartΓ­nez on Unsplash

Why Healthwashing Might Be a Problem

So, let us think about this for a moment. If you are standing in the produce isle – your broccoli, grapes, or rocket salad will – very likely (and hopefully – LOL) not have a claim on it stating that it is stock full of vitamin C, antioxidants, and in the case of the rocket and broccoli vitamin K1. On boxes and anything packaged though, these are health claims you can make and display to the consumer. However, they sometimes deviate from the fact that there may be ingredients in there that are not as good for you as we would like…

Let me tell you a story. I was standing in the supermarket and wanted to buy a granola. Yes, they tend to be quite sugary but there was a limited option for where we were going and wanted to do in terms of breakfast so it was what we settled on for convenience (I did not have the opportunity to make one myself such as this delicious Vanilla Coconut Cashew Granola). When I stood in front of the cereal isle and was looking at granolas, I was drawn to one that said “rich in fiber”. I thought: “Brilliant – this will be the one for me”. I turned it over and realized that the fiber content was less than every other granola on that isle (!!). It was also the one with the highest sugar content in comparison.

An apothecary cupboard with different labels on it
Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

How To Spot (And Avoid) Healthwashing

So, now that we have covered “what is healthwashing” and “why healthwashing might be a problem” let us dive into how you can spot and potentially avoid it. What claims do you need to look out for (or avoid)?!

Read Your Labels

I think my example above shows that you have to read your labels. If I had not done exactly that I would have not noticed that the one with the claim about the amazing benefits of fiber was the one with the smallest serving size on the package. At the same time it was having the least amount of fiber of all granolas in the isle and also the highest amount of sugar. You need to compare how many grams of carbs, sugar, fiber and protein your packaged goods have. This will allow you to make an accurate comparison irrespective of what it says on the package.

The label and the order in which the food is named will tell you an awful lot about said product. The ones named first are the ones that are represented most in the product. The further you go down the list, the less of an importance it will have in the overall product.

Chips lying on a yellow background
Photo by Jeff Siepman on Unsplash

Watch Out For Serving Sizes

Sincerely, serving sizes on nutrition labels are usually tiny, tiny, tiny. Are you really going to measure out 9 crisps out of an entire bag because that is the advertised serving size? Likely not – I certainly would not – and there is absolutely no shame or judgment here if you are not. But if it states “bla is amazing for your health” but only if you are eating a tiny bird’s mouthful and afterwards it is – simply speaking – not so great… You may want to re-think said claim.

A chocolate and walnut muffin with more muffins visible in the background
Photo by Anton on Unsplash

Watch Out For Marketing Terminology

Do not be fooled by the great marketing terminology that exists nowadays and definitely is part of the healthwashing trend. That includes claims like “dairy-free”, “gluten-free”, or “natural”. Natural, especially, is not a word that is regulated. It can be used in any context and does not mean that something needs to be “natural” (whatever that means). Gluten-free also does not mean that is cannot be full of trans fat or sugar. Organic is another one of these health claims. Unless it states 100% organic there may be some organic ingredients in the food list, but not all of them have to be. It all comes back to the original point I made – you have to read your labels to understand the full picture.

Loads of colorful blue and purple whole food veggies on a flat lay display
Photo by Bruna Branco on Unsplash

Eat As Close To Nature As Possible

I think this one goes without saying… eat as close to nature as possible. It will avoid you having to navigate labels and potential health claims… Nature knew what it was doing and it presents us with the best defense mechanism, support, vitamins, and minerals out there.

A tall glass jar of M&Ms
Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash

Watch Out For Ingredient Splitting

Last but not least – watch out for ingredient splitting. This is a common one in order to confuse consumers and – again – make something appear to be more healthful than it is. For example, there could be a claim on the product saying “with real honey”. There could even be a huge honey display on the front of the package. When you look at the list of ingredients, you realize that honey actually only makes up about 2% of the entirety of the product. What’s more, you may find dextrose, glucose, fructose, corn syrup, and maltose as part of the product. All of these are forms of sugar but by splitting them up it will become less obvious how sweet the entirety of the product is. This is clearly next to the honey that is also a form of sugar 😉.

The Takeaway From This Post

I hope this post has taught you some things about healthwashing. What is actually is and why it can be dangerous or detrimental to our health. Remember the claims can be wrong, not accurate, or deviate from a range of other challenges with the actual product). I hope it has also given you an insight into how you can navigate the healthwashing world. Unfortunately, these are all too present everywhere in supermarkets (amongst others).

Please remember: There is nothing wrong with buying a convenience food, food for pleasure, or foods that are high in sugar. But we should be aware of it, rather than thinking that we are doing something incredibly good for our bodies and not realizing that it may not be the case. Of course, vice versa – some labels may hold true. So, happy label-reading 🤗. Beautiful cover photo by Austin Kehmeier on Unsplash.

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