Health Washing: Avoid Falling for False Food Claims

Healthwashing is when food products are made to appear healthier than they are. Learn how to prevent yourself from falling prey to marketing ploys.

You want wellness as you walk through the grocery store aisles. It's almost as if the packaged products are answering your call - high-protein, low-fat, no sugar, gluten-free, pick me! But are these loud and proud health food claims actually reliable or are they just serving you a serving of bull? 

Healthwashing is a term that describes food products marketed to appear more healthy than they really are. Learn how to spot an embellished eatable and prevent yourself from falling prey to these marketing ploys. 

What is healthwashing? 

Healthwashing is a word that describes the way food marketing companies present and promote their products. Typically these claims are added in order for food manufacturers to increase sales, rather than having the consumer's wellbeing in mind. They hone in on health related claims that may not represent the entire food (1).

The science: suggestive power of healthwashing

We all suffer from the suggestive powers of marketing. It's human nature to want to be able to buy a quick fix to help health and have it work. Considering current chronic disease and obesity rates, many of us turn to external solutions to improve our wellbeing (2). 

Fortified foods have extra nutrients added back that are not normally there, such as Vitamin D in milk (3). When snack foods had a “fortified with vitamins” claim, study participants were more likely to select it and perceive it as healthier. They were also likely to look at the nutrition label and correctly choose a better product. When a food contains a health washing claim, it can cause consumers to make poor dietary choices (4).

Even if the type of claim is completely unrelated to the actual nutrition quality of the product, the marketing can make us think the food isof hhigher quality than it is. These types of claims have been shown to influence consumers’ presumption about the taste; level of health; and effect on dieting, such as how quickly it will help us lose weight (5). 

Healthwashing hinders health 

The problem with these claims is that, even when they are regulated, they don’t take all aspects of the food into consideration. Some foods may also compensate for missing ingredients and flavor. For instance, products that are lower in fat have more sugar than the regular versions (6). 

Many gluten-free or vegan foods are heavily processed and can contain lots of added sugar, salt, and preservatives. Organic foods may not be made from all organic ingredients and are not always more beneficial than their non-organic counterparts. 

Sometimes the healthwashing claims don’t make sense or are completely unrelated. For instance, packaged fruits or vegetables have been known to contain the claim “vegan”. When this is a given since they are plant-based foods

Common claims 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) governs claims made about how nutrients may help prevent disease (7). Health claims are classified into three categories depending on what they promote, including functional, general health, and nutrient content. 

Functional claims include how a food functions in the body. General health claims are related to overall disease risk. Nutrient content highlights specific nutrients such as something that’s high in vitamin C or how much of an ingredient is in a product, such as low (8).

Here are some of the most common claims to watch for:

  • Low: fat, calorie, sodium, cholesterol, sugar.
  • Source of: fiber, omega-3s, probiotics.
  • Free: fat-free, sugar-free, cholesterol-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, free from artificial ingredients. 
  • Made with: natural ingredients, real fruit.
  • Fortified with: calcium, magnesium, vitamins A, D, E, C.
  • Vegan, Vegetarian, Kosher.

Some terms such as “natural” are not regulated. The FDA considers it to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic has been included but it does not address food production methods (9). 

These claims are regulated by the FDA and must meet specific guidelines:

  • Non- or -free: sugar and fat less than 0.5 g, cholesterol less than 2mg, sodium less than 5mg per serving. 
  • Reduced: at least 25% less of the amount it usually has. 
  • Light: at least 50% less when compared to the original ingredient. 
  • Fortified or enriched: the food has 10% more of the Daily Value (DV) than the regular product (8). 

How to detect healthwashing: check the label 

One of the best ways to detect health washing is to dig a bit deeper by reading a food’s ingredient list. As a good rule of thumb, if you can’t identify or buy the listed ingredients separately, then it may not be the healthiest option. Ingredients are listed by weight so the ones that appear earlier in the list, are the ones that the product contains more of. 

Want an easy way to determine whether a food is healthy? Bypass healthwashing and simply snap the barcode on your next food purchase with the Lifesum app

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All of the content and media on Lifesum is created and published for information purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Users should always consult with a doctor or other health care professional for medical advice. If you have or think you are at risk of developing an eating disorder, do not use the Lifesum app and seek immediate medical help.