What is "Health Washing"?
Last updated: March 2022
Going to the grocery store can feel like an obstacle course sometimes. I try to keep my eyes off of the baked goods section, avoid the aisle with chocolate bars, and probably skip the alcohol section. Getting baked goods, chocolate, and alcohol is fine for me every once in a while, but I try not to make this a regular habit.
How do I find truly healthy foods to support my type 2 diabetes?
Foods like baked goods, chocolate bars, alcohol, soda, cookies, and candy are known not to be healthy foods, and many people are fine consuming these in moderation. However, the trickiest foods are the ones that pretend to be something they are not. Some foods are deceptive in their packaging and description, and they can make you think they are healthy foods when they secretly are not. This is commonly called "health washing".
What exactly is health washing?
Health washing is when a food or beverage company uses certain packaging, claims, phrases, or words to make a food or drink product seem healthier. This tactic occurs with packaged foods, especially on products like snack foods, cereals, bars, and beverages. Common phrases used in health washing include all-natural, organic, fortified with vitamins, non-GMO, gluten-free, fresh, wholesome, and contains natural fruit. Foods that have these phrases on them can certainly be healthy, however, these phrases are frequently used by companies to make foods that are not healthy seem better for you.
Foods that use health washing tactics
Granola - Thought of as a classic health food, the makeup of granola has changed drastically over the years. Granola cereal nowadays often contains a high amount of processed sugar. Some companies make granola with a lower amount of sugar, so be sure to check the nutrition label for the amount of added sugars.
Some cereals - Like granola, many other types of cereal contain a high amount of sugar. Cereal is often fortified with vitamins, so it may seem like a great choice for breakfast. However, be sure to check the amount of sugar added to cereal because you might be consuming anywhere from 10-20 grams of sugar first thing in the morning.
Kombucha - Kombucha is a carbonated, probiotic beverage made from fermented tea. It often has fruit or herbs added as flavoring to it. Kombucha is brewed with sugar, but much of it is gone after the fermentation process. However, some companies add extra sugar or fruit juice before bottling the drink. Check both the sugar content and serving size before consuming kombucha (for many kombucha bottles, the serving size is typically two).
Yogurt - This is a tricky one. Yogurt certainly can be healthy food, but not if it contains a ton of sugar. One small container of yogurt can have up to 30 grams of sugar! When you buy yogurt, plain unsweetened or Greek yogurt may be a better option because these varieties have no or very little sugar added.
Veggie straws, chips, and crackers - Vegetables are healthy, so veggie straws, chips, and crackers must be healthy too, right? Not quite. These products often contain just dehydrated vegetable powder, and which is mostly just used to color these products. These products typically don't have much nutritional value and are often just empty calories.
Gluten-free foods - This is a phrase that has been slapped on many food packages in the past few years. For those who have Celiacs disease, it is important to stay away from gluten-containing foods, but for others, it is not necessary. Just because it is gluten-free does not mean it is healthy.
Protein bars - This might be the most confusing one on the list. There are some healthy protein bars on the market and some protein bars out there that are closer to a candy bar. "High protein" sounds great, but what about the other stuff? Some protein bars are coated in chocolate, others contain not-so-healthy ingredients like corn syrup, artificial dyes, sugar alcohols, sucralose, high sodium, and other artificial ingredients. Look for bars with whole grains, nuts, seeds, whole dried fruit, and healthy fats like coconut oil.
Healthy foods takeaway
Even if packaging or certain wording makes a certain food sound healthy, it still doesn't mean it is! Always check the nutrition label to see if the food is too high in sugar, sodium, and saturated fats. Packaged foods typically employ health washing, while whole foods like fruits and vegetables are a safe bet. It can certainly be tricky to learn how to navigate through a grocery store, but once you get in the habit of learning how to read labels, you will start to figure out what products work for your diet. Feeling lost? Read these articles on navigating a grocery store and how to read nutrition labels.
Do you find it difficult to "eat right" and stick to a nutrition plan?