Health Claims on Food Labels: What is Healthwashing?

Low cholesterol, gluten-free, high-protein, fat-free — these days strolling around your local supermarket can feel like running through an obstacle course of health food claims, also known as healthwashing. But what’s actually reliable product information and what’s a bunch of marketing hocus-pocus? 8fit’s Coach Lisa lifts the lid on how to read through common claims, and make sure you’re purchasing products that promote rather than hinder or even degrade your health.

What is healthwashing

Healthwashing is a term that describes how food companies present and advertise their products and their brand as a whole, promoting values of well-being when, in reality, they’re misleading the consumer and contributing to poor health and disease. Studies show that health claims on food labels convince buyers to skip the nutrition facts (ingredient labels) and immediately perceive the product as healthier. This means that it’s less likely that you, the consumer, will make an informed decision when choosing based on the allure and ease of picking the product that deceptively emphasizes health properties. “Low-fat cookies? Excellent, I’ll have 10!”

The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 was designed to give consumers more accurate information about foods. This act allowed the US  Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to issue regulations for statements that describe the relationship between nutrients and disease. A beneficial intention, but the problem is that these health claims on food labels can be misleading.

Health claims on food labels can be classified into three categories: functional, general health, and nutrient content guidance.

  • Functional includes how the food works on the body, such as fiber for the promotion of bowel regularity.
  • General health claims provide guidance, for instance, soluble fiber to help reduce heart disease risk.
  • Nutrient content claims which would include “good source of calcium.”

Here are some of the most common claims you may see on your food packaging and what the really mean.

Disclaimer
References and information used in this article are based on the United States directives. Claims may vary by country.
  • Organic: If a product is to receive the USDA organic stamp, it must contain at least 95% certified organic ingredients. This official stamp is not mandatory, meaning some products may be organic but may not necessarily promote it.
  • Made with organic ingredients: At least 70% of the ingredients used must be organic, but not necessarily all of them. This product will not display the USDA organic stamp.
  • Non- or -free: Though non- or -free may be on the product packaging, doesn’t mean the product is devoid of the specific substance it claims to be free of. For sugar and fat, it must be less than 0.5 grams. For cholesterol, less than 2mg and sodium less than 5mg.
  • Reduced: The product must have at least 25% less of the amount usually found in that type of food. So say if ice cream is 25% less fat, it will still contain a significant amount of fat, as you might be unaware just how much fat is actually in it to begin with.
  • Light: Similar to reduced, light means the ingredient must be at least 50% less than when compared to the original product; just because the product is less fat, doesn’t mean that it’s healthy.
  • Naturally raised: This means that the animals were reared without growth hormones or antibiotics. It doesn’t take into account treatment or what the animals were fed.
  • Natural: This label is only regulated for meats and poultry. Typically means that the product does not contain artificial flavors, colors, or chemicals but be aware that regulations can be quite lenient.

There are also quite a few common terms that don’t have standard definitions and can be very confusing:

  • Doctor or dentist-approved: Doctors and dentists recommend different things, and there is no proof of which one supports the product.
  • Kid or parent-approved: Same as above. Which parent or kid recommends this product and what makes them a trusted source of advice?
  • Free-range: This doesn’t necessarily mean that the animal roams free all day, but instead it means that it has access to get out of its cage from time to time.
  • Green: This can mean anything and tends to target those with interest in sustainability and environmental issues. The green color of packaging has been shown to influence choice.

Healthwashing products

Cholesterol lies

One healthwashing claim often cited and that our team of nutritionists finds especially problematic is the term “cholesterol free.”  About five years ago, before revelations on saturated fat, when saturated fat and cholesterol were the only known contributors to heart attacks; almost every product that could, claimed it had low or no cholesterol. In some instances, this ridiculous claim even extended to vegetables, nuts, seeds, and vegan products. News flash: animal cholesterol is the only source of dietary cholesterol (dairy, meat, fish, poultry, eggs). So enjoy a little giggle when you notice that those snap peas claim to be cholesterol-free.

Mineral mania

Food fortifying is the process of adding vitamins and minerals to foods to improve the nutritional quality or enriching foods with the addition of micronutrients that get lost in processing. So when whole grains are stripped of their nutritious fiber and micronutrients, food companies will try to reintroduce them back in. Why not just keep the original healthy food as it is? The reason for the processing comes down to extending a products shelf life or in other instances making certain foods more crave-worthy.

There’s a good reason for the addition of extra nutrients to food as it reduces the overall health risk of nutritional deficiency in the population. A couple of noteworthy minerals are iodine added to salt to prevent a goiter (an enlargement of the thyroid gland), as well as folate enrichment to prevent defects of the brain, spine, or spinal cord in babies called spina bifida.

The problem with fortified foods is that the body doesn’t readily absorb all nutrients. One major drawback is that the original form of the vitamin or mineral is often very different from its natural state. When eating a whole food, the nutrients are already in balance with the other nutrients, helping to increase absorption. However, fortified foods within a healthwashing context is big business.

No trans fat

Trans fat, known to increase the risk of heart disease and cancer, is required to be listed on the food label. This step was an excellent move towards improving people’s health; however, the issue is it can still sneak into our food. If a serving contains less than 0.5 grams, then it can be communicated as 0 grams on the label, and this is per serving. I don’t know about you, but it’s difficult just to eat a handful of chips when you got a bag in front of you. An excellent way to tell if a product contains trans fat is to look on the label and search for anything titled hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated.

healthwashing sweet potato

Wash away the healthwashing

Just because a food may be labeled as gluten, dairy, sugar, or fat-free, doesn’t mean that it’s healthy. In fact, these foods tend to make up for what’s lost by adding in unhealthy ingredients to compensate for the taste. For instance, sugar-free products are often loaded with insulin spiking artificial sweeteners and many gluten-free products are still refined and processed.

If something says “whole”, “natural”, or “organic” purchase with awareness. Scan the ingredient list and see if they indeed live up to the labeling claims. Certified holistic nutritionist, Meghan Telpner advises to look out for sneaky tricks like an asterisk symbol (*) on a food label which leads to small print below, because the ingredient will most likely have its very own long list of ingredients.

Keep in mind there aren’t any magic foods or supplements out there. Nutrition isn’t a “one size fits all” deal. What matters is your overall diet and the variety it contains. Just cut back on processed and packaged foods and read the ingredient list rather than trust the packaging. The healthiest foods available tend to come unpackaged. Make sure to include a balance of fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and healthy fats for optimal nutrition.

read food labels

Healthwashing brainwashing: Coach Lisa tells all

Last week I headed back home to the US to visit my parents. While I was there my eyes reopened to just how convincing food manufacturers can be with their healthwashing claims. My parents are a prime example of middle American living and reminded me how easy it is to fall prey to marketing and health claims on food labels. My mom proudly showed me how “healthy” her recently purchased bran cereal was. Despite being a qualified nutritionist, it’s rare that my parents take my advice, so I jumped at the opportunity to see what my mom had bought!

My first impression was that the bran flakes were wholesome and healthy. The box was simple and “adult-like.” The name made me assume they were whole grain and contained fiber. The claims stated that they were a “good source of whole grains” and was “fortified with folate and iron.” However, on closer inspection, I stood corrected.

I read the ingredient list and was quickly disappointed as well as concerned for my parents’ health. Ingredients are listed according to weight, so the ones you read first, are ones that are the highest volume in the product. The third ingredient in my mom’s bran flakes was sugar; the fourth was high fructose corn syrup  (sugar), the fifth salt, and the sixth malt (sugar). Meaning these “healthy” bran flakes were exploding with sugar.

I marched back to the grocery store with my mom to help her find a better brand. While walking down the aisles, I was dumbfounded at just how overwhelming and misleading the health claims found on food labels were. I saw endless products labeled with the most the common health claims. I found a tasty looking oat bar that stated: “good source of calcium.” It even made me think, Well yes, of course, I need more calcium!, without considering any of the other products. I couldn’t help but become subject to the brainwashing effects of healthwashing brainwashing.

Needless to say, I snapped out of it, you don’t curate the 8fit meal plans for a living without putting health as a priority, and reminded myself “whole foods first, Lisa.” So don’t be hard on yourself when you’re out shopping, even an expert nutritionist like myself sometimes falls for creative product marketing.