"Healthwashing" and How to Avoid It

How many times have you picked up a product because it promised to be “low fat” or “organic”? 

Stepping into the grocery store, it’s not uncommon to see packages plastered with health claim labels: “gluten-free, “low calorie,” “no artificial flavors,” and many other descriptors. Although these products carry nutritional labels, these claims are often misleading with the hope of appealing to people with certain health issues. This is part of a phenomenon called, Healthwashing.

What is Healthwashing?

Healthwashing describes companies’ marketing attempt to capitalize on the health concerns of consumers by trying to position themselves as a healthier option. However, these same companies often contribute to poor health due to their products or other practices they fail to disclose. 

This method preys on those trying to make healthier decisions by suppressing damaging information. When consumers go into stores, they walk in with the best intentions; they don’t purposely try to buy health-promoting food that isn’t good for them. They often trust the claims on the front without taking the time to learn about the many ways 

The issue is the health claim does not match the actual nutritional value.

Common Healthwashing Label Claims

  • Low-fat
  • Low calorie
  • Sugar-free
  • Fat-free
  • Made with real fruit
  • Low sodium
  • Source of fibre
  • Source of Omega-3s
  • Gluten-free
  • Dairy-free
  • Organic

Watch Our LIVE Session with Meghan Telpner 

We sat down with a nutritionist and best-selling author of the UnDiet book series, Meghan Telpner, for an Instagram live about healthwashing. Watch the video to learn how to detect healthwashing and tips to eating healthier.

How to Detect Healthwashing

1. Read Ingredients First

Megan Telpner warns consumers to always be suspicious of what is on the outside of a product. The pretty packaging and bold promises are marketing tactics meant to sway you to purchase a product. What matters, she says, is the ingredients.

Examples of Healthwashing

Cereals are famous for using healthwashing. On average, cereals have eight claims (ex. high in fiber, multi-grain, gluten-free, etc.), but the ingredient list and nutrition facts label are where you should direct your attention. While some of the claims they promise are good, there tend to be loads of sugar and unhealthy additives hidden in the ingredients list.

Bread is another example. Many companies highlight how it contains omega-3s because they sprinkle it with flaxseed. These companies won't tell you flaxseeds don’t digest until they’re ground; whole flaxseeds pass straight through your system. Also, the Omega-3s are more harmful than beneficial when baked because they are volatile to heat, light, and oxygen. Although some bread with sunflower and pumpkin seeds is stablier, omega-3s are not beneficial.

Zero-calorie soda is another culprit in healthwashing. Aside from water and herbal tea, nothing can be zero-calorie. Something is being added to give these sodas their flavor or sweetness. A calorie-restricted lifestyle can achieve certain goals but typically you are using chemical substitutes so the goal is not one of health.

Many manufacturers claim their products include fortified vitamins and fibers and other benefits that detract from the added sugar. Although milk and orange juice do include Vitamin D, it is usually not the vitamin D we need. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, if it is not in the form or quantity you need, you won’t be able to absorb it. 

Be wary of “fat-free” claims. Buttery spreads, milk, and yogurt should all naturally have fat in it. As soon as you remove the fat, you remove a bunch of other components.

2. Look out for sugar

"The only thing worth looking at on the nutritional panel is how much sugar is in something,” Meghan says, “That is really the refined carbohydrate component." It doesn't matter how much protein a food contains if there is a lot of sugar. You can't pick and choose the protein out of the food, you consume the whole thing. 

Sugar is usually one of the first ingredients presented on an ingredients list and it goes by over 50 different names. Companies sometimes try to disguise how much sugar is in a product by “ingredient splitting”. Through ingredient splitting, companies hide the actual quantity of an ingredient in a product by using multiple names for the same ingredient. Common names for sugar are sucrose, fructose, glucose, corn syrup, malt syrup, maltose, and molasses.

By knowing what exactly is in our food, we can feel more empowered to make the right choice about what goes into our bodies.

She is a big fan of the Good Food For Good Ketchup. A traditional bottle of ketchup contains about 2/3 a cup of sugar (4g per tbsp), while the Good Food For Good Ketchup contains 1g of natural sugar from wholesome dates per tbsp. After years of making homemade ketchup, she can now enjoy the condiment without spending time making it herself. The Good Food For Good Ketchup is sweetened with dates, packaged in glass, and its ingredients are readable by the everyday person. 

3. Stick to unprocessed foods

Keep the processing of food in your kitchen. A lot of the nutrients that naturally occur in some foods are removed during the process of creating the food. 

Certain oils lose nutritional value when heated at certain temperatures. To make fluid oil more stable, they are saturated at higher temperatures. The best oils to use don’t need to be stabilized such as coconut oil, sesame oil, ghee, lard, and avocado oil. Oils like sunflower, safflower, and canola are not stable at high cooking temperatures. They become oxidized and when we eat enough oxidized fats, there is free radical damage that happens in the body.

Your brain is made of fat. If you are constantly eating oxidized fat and processed foods, it will affect the health of the brain (how neurotransmitters fire, cognitive function, and how you see and perceive the world), which is so vitally important.

4. Natural and Organic doesn’t mean healthy

Divorcing yourself from the idea that food that claims to be natural, organic, and/or non-GMO is so important. Food located in the natural or organic aisle might grab your eye, but much like the others, they can still be unhealthy. Companies know how easy it is for consumers to be tripped up by the labels. These phrases confuse our brains and make it easier to forget what you should be looking for. 

Watch out for specialty foods marked with gluten-free, kosher, dairy-free, and more. Although they may live up to their original claim, they might be obscuring something else.

Meghan recommends looking for the organic label rather than ‘non-GMO’. She states, "Not every food grown is potentially grown genetically modified. It is very few.  There are like 7 or 8 crops that are genetically modified. That ‘Non-GMO’ is good, but it is useless if the product never would have contained wheat, corn, beet sugar…or any of the foods that would be genetically modified. It can have the GMO label, but it can still be sprayed with glyphosate."

When shopping locally, trust what the grower says about the food. A product labeled “low spray” is still spray. While it is not always possible to avoid pesticides in the reality of farming and especially with climate, you can do your best to offset the effects. Do what you can from scratch, buy fruits and vegetables in season, and make your own jams. 

Based on your specific needs, what are the details you need to refine for yourself, so you aren’t fooled by the label? Set a hierarchy of what is important: know what matters to you and make those choices based on your own personal philosophies. These choices may change with time, but ultimately try to do better and keep learning.

More about Megan Telphner

Meghan Telpner is a Toronto-based nutritionist, author, and founder of the Academy of Culinary Nutrition. She has been featured in Forbes as one of the top 100 female entrepreneurs in Canada and named Best Holistic Nutritionist in 2017 and 2018 with National Nutrition. Her goal in the academy is to empower people to understand the benefits and healing power of the food we choose and help them make informed choices. You can follow her on Instagram @meghantelpner or visit her website: meghantelpner.com.

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