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Healthwashing – What Is It?

A reader asks: “What is healthwashing?”

Healthwashing is a term we use to describe what companies, manufacturers, retailers and other sellers do to make a product that isn’t particularly good for you seem healthier, safer or more nutritious.

A “healthwashed” product can be a new version of an old food or just a repositioning of a product that is already in the marketplace.

Think of a can of cola. One company might healthwash its drink by playing up the fact that it’s made with natural sugar, as opposed to artificial sweeteners. Another might repackage its cola in slightly smaller cans with the promise of fewer calories. You think you’re doing something positive for your health but, really, you’re still drinking a beverage with no real nutritional value.

Another example of healthwashing might come from your local farmer, who claims his pork was raised without antibiotics. The truth, though, is that in the U.S. absolutely no hormones can be used in hogs raised for consumption. Anyone selling pork with a no-hormones claim must, under US law, also add this after the hormone-free claim: “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”

The word “healthwashing” is a hot buzzword but the dangers of it have long been known. And those dangers have even been scientifically studied. A 2016 study published in Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that when manufacturers added a claim about vitamin fortification (a practice the FDA says they aren’t actually supposed to do) to snack foods, shoppers were:

  • Less likely to look for nutrition information on the label
  • More likely to select the product for purchase
  • More likely to perceive the product as healthier
  • Less likely to correctly choose the healthier product

Foods aren’t the only products to be healthwashed. Volatile organic extracts, which are known as essential oils, are widely promoted as “natural” alternatives to synthetic fragrances and found these days in everything from room fresheners to floor cleaners to baby shampoos.

Of course, “natural” doesn’t always mean that something is safe. A quick search of major medical databases turns up dozens of case histories of essential oils causing things like contact dermatitis, gynecomastia in young boys and even severe phototoxic reactions.

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