More and more packaged food products are being marketed as beneficial to your health. Here’s what you need to know about healthwashing, and why you should stay skeptical about health claims made by packaged foodsBy Leigh Doyle
As a savvy consumer, you’re probably on the look out for “greenwashing,” the pop-culture term Greenpeace defines as “the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.” But have you heard of “healthwashing”?
This new term has been popping up online to describe when a product (typically food) is marketed as healthier than it actually is, with references in advertisements and on packaging to health-boosting ingredients, such as vitamins, antioxidants and probiotics.
Dr. Joe Schwarcz, the director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, which demystifies science for the public, refers to healthwashing as the “nutraceutical” trend (a mash-up of the words nutrition and pharmaceutical). “It’s the idea that a food can be a quasi drug and address health concerns,” he says.
While foods that suggest they can boost immunity or lower your risk of illness seem to be support a healthy lifestyle, some of the companies that produce them have gotten into trouble for making these claims.
In 2009, Coca-Cola was sued over language the company used to market its VitaminWater product line, including words such as "endurance," "rescue" and "energy." The drinks contain 33 grams of sugar and synthetic vitamins.
In 2010, Dannon settled a lawsuit that accused the company of falsely advertising that the products DanActive and Activia yogurts were “clinically” and “scientifically” proven to regulate digestion and boost the immune system. A judge ordered the company to repay customers because the company had made claims they had not proven.
And both Pom Wonderful and General Mills, the makers of Cheerios, were also sent warning letters from the FDA to change packaging claims that their products reduce blood pressure and lower cholesterol.
Healthwashing in action
Fortified foods seem to be multiplying on the grocery-store shelves: Plant sterols are the newest additive to dairy products, probiotics have moved from yogurt to bread and orange juice comes fortified with calcium.
The influx of these products means consumers are buying them in droves. What makes these products so appealing? “We see the labels and we want to believe it because the work of eating healthy and balanced is done for us. But remember there are no labels on whole foods, such as oranges or broccoli,” says Meghan Telpner, a Toronto-based certified nutritionist and holistic lifestyle consultant. It’s always better to eat the whole food than a product that contains a synthetic version of a beneficial nutrient, she adds.
How are health claims regulated?
While Dannon was warned about its marketing in the U.S., Dannon in Canada uses some different language on its product packaging. The DanActive website states that the product “contains probiotic that contributes to healthy gut flora,” which is a claim approved by the government.
Under Health Canada regulations, companies are allowed to make three types of health claims: The first type is functional claims, such as “promotes regularity.” The second type is general claims, which provide dietary guidance such as “include one serving a day as part of a healthy diet.” The third is disease reduction, such as “lowers cholesterol.”
When a health claim brings the food under Health Canada’s definition of a drug (that is, if a company claims a product treats or prevents a disease, for example), the company making it must submit proof to Health Canada in the form of human clinical trials that demonstrate a statistically significant positive effect. A food cannot be marketed with the health claim until the government gives approval.
Health claims that do not make the food a drug in Health Canada’s eyes—such as the wording on DanActive’s packaging—don’t require pre-market approval. The expectation is that those claims must be truthful and not misleading, and manufacturers are expected to have evidence substantiating the health claim on hand in case the government questions them.
Why tune into healthwashing?
Purchasing a product because of a health claim made on its packaging may lighten your pocket book—some foods labelled with health claims can cost more money than their competitors. For example, Activia yogurt can be as much as 21 percent more expensive than other brands.
But healthwashing can also be harmful to your health, Telpner says. “These claims lead some consumers to believe that a high-fiber cereal bar has as the same health benefits—like extra fibre or blood-sugar regulation—as a bowl of steel cut oats. But that’s simply not true,” she asserts. When eat a prepackaged cereal bar, will certainly get some fibre, but you will also consume extra sugar, salt and other additives, which can contribute to health problems. “People think they are making a good choice to benefit their health [when they eat these packaged foods], but they are not and would be better off with unprocessed food,” Telpner says.
Schwarcz says he believes healthwashing wrongly encourages consumers to focus on so-called miracle foods and nutrition in general as the path to perfect health. “It’s seductive to think you can dramatically change your health with eating alone. While food is an important contributor to our health and one that we control, we must not ignore the role of genetics, lifestyle, environment, sleep and stress,” he stresses. No one superfood can replace the benefits of a healthy lifestyle combined with a balanced diet.
In defense of health claims
Anne-Julie Maltais, the external communication manager at Danone Canada says health claims on foods are a good thing. “We believe that these messages help consumers make the right choices and we intend to continue working with researchers and regulatory bodies to advance the understanding of foods that support human health and well-being,” she explains. When it comes to whole foods versus packaged options, she says that in certain cases you would need to eat an unrealistic amount of a whole food to get a significant nutritional benefit. Foods with added supplements can help you reach daily-suggested minimums for vitamins and minerals, she says.
Confused about the myriad health claims made by food products? Your key to clarity may be to cut back on the packaged foods you buy. “It becomes a lot simpler when you’re not trying to decipher if what the box says is true,” says Telpner.
But if you are interested in purchasing these foods, Schwarcz says there are certain health claims that should be ignored because they don’t mean anything. These include “made with” or “made from,” “now with less” and “natural.” For other claims, visit the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's Guide to Food Labelling and Advertising to learn what companies need to prove in order to put phrases like ”reducing cholesterol,” “lowering cancer risk,” or “boosting immunity,” on your food.
Health Canada suggests that you always refer to a product’s nutrition facts table when deciding if a food is a healthy choice for you or not. “Remember that there are no “miracle” foods or beverages out there. What matters is your overall diet,” says Schwarcz.
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Web exclusive, March 2011