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Healthwashing Makes Me Feel Dirty: 10 Tips To Avoid The Trap


Have you ever wondered why every item in the produce aisle doesn't carry the "Health Check"? Or perhaps how buying a plastic bottle of water might help women with breast cancer (when the bottle itself is contributing to the high breast cancer rates), or perhaps why women on a diet think that a calorie free, chemical soda might help them lose weight?

Did you know the "Health Check" is absolutely meaningless? Companies pay the Heart and Stroke Foundation to use it on their products, and pay various other groups to use various other claims.

And it works because most of us are fat, sick and working our way towards serious health degradation. I've heard it said that scientists couldn't invent a more perfect diet than the Standard American Diet if the goal was to produce disease in a population.

We buy into the claims that are slathered, star bursted and shouted at us from TV, magazines and food packages themselves because we want so bad for it to work. We are buying and the marketers keep branding, proclaiming and in many cases, completely fabricating health claims on the packaged, processed food they are selling- and many of them don't make any sense at all.

Welcome to the land of Healthwashing.

My very own Superhero (and super shopper) Lisa Borden and I created a Healthwashing Wall Of Shame Facebook page, so that together we can start raising awareness of this extremely unethical practice.

As it's written on the Healthwashing Wall Of Shame

Healthwashing is a term used to describe the activities of companies and groups that position themselves as leaders in the crusade forward to good health while engaging in practices that may be contributing to our poor health... A good product, campaign or service stands on their own goodness, not on a claim and offers FULL DISCLOSURE of all ingredients and activity. (If it's a product on shelf, it's always best to judge something by what's IN the box, not by what's promised across the outside in big, fabulous exciting designs. The bigger the claim, usually the more Healthwashed.

Be informed, and we'll help you along the way. Jen already has been with her tales of ice creamveggie dogs, hot dogs, and kids breakfast cereal.

10 Tips To Avoid Being Healthwashed

  1. Any peculiarly coloured packaged food- stay away, no matter what the claim. There is no such thing as "Natural Colouring".
  2. Natural and Organic don't mean "Healthy" (and now rarely mean natural or 100% organic).
  3. Show me a "Natural Flavours" tree. I am thinking there is nothing natural about "Natural Flavours". Maybe the "Natural Flavours Tree" is in some orchard beside the "Natural Colouring Tree".
  4. The bigger the label, the flashier the health claim, the greater the chance of it being a healthwashed product. Do yourself a favour and pretend you can't read, unless it's the ingredient list (see point 8).
  5. Just because it's in a "natural foods" aisle or health food store does not mean it's healthy. This also goes for specialty foods like gluten-free, kosher, dairy-free etc. (See point 9 and 10 below).
  6. Ensure that most of your diet doesn't come in any packaging to have a claim on it.  Fruits, veg, beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts, seeds, organic and naturally raised animal foods.
  7. Ignore the nutrition label. It means absolutely nothing. NOTHING. For example, in most cases, if good oils are present, you are better off eating a food with more calories from fat than from carbs/sugar. The serving sizes are usually about enough to feed a small kitten, you'll probably eat triple. Nutrition labels are useless. Trust me on this.
  8. If a food carries a claim recognized by a government organization- stay away. Pretty sure that government dictated health regulations haven't done too well for us. (This also applies to the % that appear on the nutrition labels, so please apply rule #7 here).
  9. The only part of a label worth reading is the ingredient list. Read it. If it is too small to read, there are too many items on that ingredient list, 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.
  10. If something says "whole", or "natural" or "organic" the ingredient label should tell the true story. That being said, watch out for sneaky tricks like * on certain ingredients with small print below, ingredient items that likely have their own list of ingredients.

Bonus Extra Important Rule: Beware of ingredient splitting.  This is where a company will split up certain ingredients so they don't appear first in the ingredient list. Ingredients on a label are listed by weight. Often packaged food companies will split sugar into glucose, fructose, cane sugar, beet sugar, corn syrup, barley malt, molasses etc. They use any number of names and use a few different ones so that sugar won't appear first on the ingredient list.

Question Of The Day: Which nutritional claim do you most often fall victim to?

35 Responses to “Healthwashing Makes Me Feel Dirty: 10 Tips To Avoid The Trap”

  1. Oh gosh - seen you on tv and went to your site. I love it - one day I hope to take my mom to one of your gluten free classes. But it is so nice to see an article like this one. It is hard to make others understand that YES people do this and it is sooo sad. The hardest part is when you believe this and you can not one get your kids to grasp the concept and second family members. Thanks for writing this.
  2. Kristen said… August 10, 2011
    I most often fall victim to the "organic" packaged foods.
  3. Carlen said… August 10, 2011
    " The serving sizes are usually about enough to feed a small kitten, you’ll probably eat triple." LOL so true! On the bright side, products like these will keep us nutritionists in business for quite a long time. ;-) So much to educate, so little time. :-)
  4. Patsy Telpner said… August 10, 2011
    I always get sucked in by "natural". I can never read the ingredients list with my contacts on and have learned my lesson. I once brought something home from the frozen food section. When I discovered it had cottonseed oil, I returned it to the frozen food section without asking for a refund. Don't tell anyone. No one reading this would ever buy it anyway.
  5. tanya said… August 10, 2011
    The "natural" in natural colouring or flavouring can actually mean anything from nature, as opposed to a man-made chemical. Truth: healthier than drinking bleach or Yellow number 5. But the source of these "natural" colours and flavors, sometimes things like beets, algae, turmeric and paprika, are also occasionally the innards of beetles and caterpillars. I the end, natural or artificial, either one is made in a lab. 100% agree with your advice to ignore all the nutrition labels and gov't claims and read only the ingredients.
  6. "Health Check" needs a reality check. Maybe if the Heart and Stroke foundation stopped getting funding from corporations that product the very foods that are linked to heart disease and stroke then there would be a legitimate method of determining the healthiness of food. Did you know some Pizza Hut food gets a health check? Puh-lease! I usually steer clear of food that even has a label at all ie. I eat a lot of produce.
    • NA said… May 24, 2013
      FYI - there are produce items that are Health Checked, they just don't have packaging for the logo. People like you really need to do research for bashing something like this. I encourage you to look at the Health Check website.
      • Meg Fyfe Watkins said… May 29, 2013
        Thanks for your comments. Here is an interesting read:
  7. Val said… August 10, 2011
    I tend to get sucked in less at the grocery store and more at home or a potluck when someone has a package of something open, especially if I eat some before finding out the ingredients.
  8. So glad to find this here. Thanks for spreading the word. If it comes in a box, wrapper or plastic clamshell, I don't trust it. Nowadays, you have to be extra vigilant not to be fooled. Read those USDA organic labels and you discover that the label means different things depending on what color it is. Even their top-rated organic foods only have to be 95 percent organic--and that's organic by their watered-down standards. That leaves plenty of room for GMO and other carp to slip in. Best practice: Buy locally grown, whole foods and prepare them yourself. As Michael Pollan says, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
  9. This is a great list- so important for people to realize. I still fall victim to packaged Organic foods, though I try to stay away.
  10. Jen said… August 16, 2011
    Years ago, I used to work for a chicken processing company and I remember the whole 'health check' thing being absolute bull. The health check chicken breasts that were being produced had to be kept under a certain level of sodium that was still ridiculously high - It's chicken! Why are we filling it with phosphates, water, and salt? Needless to say, I no longer work there - I didn't feel remotely comfortable standing by products like these and it really opened my eyes to the crazy ways we are being lied to by big food processors. How do people look at the chicken at places like Subway and Tim Horton's and think "Yup, looks like real food to me!"? I don't get it AT ALL. Moreover, How are these companies selling crap like this to the general public? Gross. And there's my rant lol
  11. [...] that we’ve defined the dirtiness that is Healthwashing, it’s time we start addressing some of the viscous culprits. Back in May, I received a press [...]
  12. Jan Petrook said… August 16, 2011
    Love the comments of your readers - the problem with food, is that it is all Food Grade standards and their standards are very poor - they are not even required to list everything that is in thet can, package or bottle. The same goes for nutritional supplements - the majority of manufacturers are only under Food Grade Standards - hence - they can have arsenic in them if they wanted to - always purchase nutritional supplements that are Pharmaseutical Grade - there are only about four companies that have this rating - they HAVE to list all contents of each supplement, and are the best in the market place. It is a mine field out there in food land! Jan Petrook
  13. [...] week Meghan introduced the concept of Healthwashing, what it is and how we can avoid falling victim to its hold. Very useful information these days [...]
  14. [...] healthwashing. I learned the term from a brilliant blogger named Meghan Telpner. I pulled this definition from her blog Healthwashing is a term used to describe the activities of [...]
  15. [...] about this that we get a little heated up when we see yucky healthwashing all around us. Meghan has gone over this concept before and we’ll definitely be seeing more of it. The trick is to stay informed and keep your [...]
  16. #healthwashing makes me feel dirty
  17. Healthier is not the same as healthy #healthwashing
  18. reading these tips just blew my mind!
  19. [...] recently came across an excellent write-up on the topic of Healthwashing. Want to find out more about what the jargon the “healthy” or “natural” [...]
  20. [...] that we’ve defined the dirtiness that is Healthwashing, it’s time we start addressing some of the viscous culprits. Back in May, I received a press [...]
  21. [...] Get the top 10 tips here!  [...]
  22. what exactly is "healthwashing?" A great guide from meghan telpner......
  23. [...] toe as healthy, when truth be told, if you looked at the ingredients they are a prime examples of healthwashing. Their marketing campaign was pretty freaking smart. So smart that they actually asked me to be a [...]
  24. [...] product development  for the Toronto-based Janes Family Foods- who like to bathe themselves in Healthwashing- “If I want to have a Twinkie and wash it down with a glass of Kool-Aid to relive my [...]
  25. [...] there are the “nutrition experts” who  healthwash our very own “Healthwashing” title by declaring an Egg (Mc)Muffin a better breakfast option than a bran muffin (and also [...]
  26. [...] been talking a lot about healthwashing on the Love in the Kitchen blog lately. When it comes to some of the moo-vers and shakers of [...]
  27. [...] that we’ve been rocking the healthwashing theme all week- this next line in our creed fits like BHT coated cereal bag in a phthalate [...]
  28. NA said… May 24, 2013
    Health Check has to follow guidelines before approving a company's request - they aren't just getting money and putting their logo on a package. I agree with everything else in this article except for the Health Check bashing.
  29. […] the market that I could find.  And I can confidently, knowingly tell you that these brands do not healthwash or […]

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