Have you heard of the term “green-washing”? Green-washing happens when when products are marketed and advertised as being more environmentally friendly than they (or the company) actually are. Green-washing is done in attempt to reap the benefits of appearing to be more “green”, including attracting more consumers to the product because of its “greenness”.
Have you noticed that something similar is happening with regards to health and wellbeing? Products are labelled, marketed and advertised in ways that make them appear to be more healthy or diet friendly. And we, as consumers, are attracted to buying the products because of the benefits they promote.
This is what I call “health-washing”.
Picture this: you are standing in the supermarket trying to choose which yoghurt to buy. On the shelf in front of you are dozens of choices and each choice promises something different. “Low Fat”, “Sugar Free”, “High Protein”, “Dairy Free”, “Preservative Free”, “Naturally Flavoured”, “Lite” – which one do you choose?
A lot of people, myself included, will make our purchasing decisions based on what the product promises. I know that I would probably pick up the “High Protein” or the “Dairy Free” yoghurt, glance briefly at the nutritional information and then buy it. I usually don’t even look at the ingredients or pay close attention to what the “trade-offs” are.
What do I mean by “trade-offs”?
Usually, when a product promises to be “high” or “low” in one macro-nutrient, there’s a trade-off between that macro-nutrient and another. Something that is “low fat” will often be higher in carbohydrates than the regular version of that product. Similarly, something “low carb” will often be higher in fat.
It is so easy to be influenced by what a product offers that the trade-offs or other nutritional outcomes are not realised. It’s happened to me and I’m sure it happens to others too.
It’s difficult to make purchasing decisions in the supermarket and it is even more difficult when eating out at restaurants or where the nutritional information isn’t easily accessible. Nowadays, many restaurants have capitalised on health food trends and label their meals things like “gluten free”, “high protein”, “fat free” etcetera.
Here’s an example:
There is a burger restaurant in Australia that has done something that I define as “health-washing”. They have two burger bun options to choose from: a traditional (regular) bun and a ‘low carb’ bun.
They advertise the low-carb bun as being diet and health friendly. They say the bun is “perfect option for those who love a great burger but are keeping carbs on the down low”. And sure, the idea of a low-carb bun sounds great but is it too good to be true? When the nutritional information of the low-carb bun is examined, you can see that the low carb bun does deliver on its promise of lower carbs but it also contains significantly more fat and is made up of more calories than the traditional bun.
The low-carb option is great for people counting their macros or people aware of the nutritional information. But for the average person, it is confusing and sort of misleading. I’m sure that many people choose the low carb bun as they are under the impression that “low carb” also means “lower calories” but in fact the complete opposite is true.
I’ve pointed out the nutritional information of the burger bun to many people I’ve spoken to about this whole “health-washing” idea and most of them have been surprised to hear about the ‘trade-offs’. That’s what ‘health-washing’ is all about; making something seem more nutritionally beneficial than it actually is.
How can you ensure you aren’t influenced by ‘health-washing’?
The best way you can ensure that you aren’t influenced by products claiming to have a nutritional/diet-based benefit is to read your labels. Read the nutritional information and read the ingredients list. Is there a ‘trade-off’ brought on by the nutritional/diet-based claim? Are there ingredients listed that you do not want to consume? Familiarise yourself with both unwanted ingredients and the layout of the nutritional information panel so you can quickly make purchasing decisions.
Make sure you are aware of any trade-offs that a product might have. If you’re okay with these, then by all means buy the product. If you known about the nutritional information and are aware of your macros or dietary requirements, then any potential health-washing and trade-offs shouldn’t compromise your diet or health and fitness goals. It’s only when people don’t realise that health-washing or trade-offs are happening that it becomes a problem.