Healthy processed foods have undoubtedly grown in popularity.
When I went gluten-free eight years ago to curb my autoimmune symptoms, I had a whole new world of products to navigate. I had just begun eating healthy a couple of years before and was still figuring out what was really “good” and what wouldn’t benefit me.
It wasn’t so easy to label foods as being “good” or “bad”. Some products contained a list of ingredients just as long as the processed foods with gluten I was trying to avoid.
“Healthwashing” is a term describing marketing claims from companies that suggest a product is healthy, when the truth is a bit murkier. And it works—because more people like you and me are in search of a better way to care for and nourish our bodies to support health.
Examples of Healthwashing and Its Effects
You might recognize health washing as a label that says “heart healthy” or “free from artificial colors and flavors” on a food product.
In fact, there’s even research to support the efficacy of healthwashing . People are less likely to scrutinize the nutrition label of products with some of these descriptions, yet are more likely to buy the product and believe it’s healthier, when really, they’re just marketing efforts.
Healthwashing has us in an advantageous position—we want to believe the claims on these products, and so believe them. But some of these labels don’t deliver what they promise.
For example, I recently bought a product online that was advertised as vegan only to get the product and see that the label read “Contains Shellfish”. And I’d checked the ingredients. Guess I wasn’t as fastidious as I thought.
There are many ways of marketing foods that may not be as healthy for us—or may be even harmful for us—as healthy. And the effects can be detrimental on our health. These products can still have loads of refined sugar, trans-fats, and chemicals. Research has shown that processed foods have negative effects on our health .
And, ultra-processed foods have even been linked to a higher risk of cancer because they tend to have more fat, sugar, and salt, with low fiber and low vitamin and mineral content . In other words—they don’t provide any benefits to our wellbeing.
Other claims that could constitute healthwashing include:
- 100% natural ingredients
- Low cholesterol
- Good source of fiber
- Provides X% of your recommended daily intake of fiber, iron, etc.
So what are some examples of healthwashing foods that are advertised as being good for us, but may not be actually?
With the popularity of the keto diet to help with everything from weight loss to seizures, it’s understandable that people would be looking for keto bread options. After all, bread is arguably much more popular than the keto diet ever was or ever will be.
Which is why it’s understandable that shoppers were psyched when keto breads became available. For just a few dollars, some of these brands advertise themselves as being, among others things:
- Zero net carbs
- Excellent source of fiber
But what about the ingredients? If you were on the keto diet, would you skip looking at the ingredient list, seeing that these advertising claims tell you everything a normal person would want to know about the product?
The ingredients, which vary depending on which specific variety of the bread you get, could include a heavy gluten content, soybean oil, and preservatives.
These ingredients can be problematic for gems like me who are intolerant or sensitive to gluten, and soybean oil is highly processed with a high omega-6 content. Omega-6s by themselves aren’t bad per se, but too many in relation to your omega-3 intake can trigger an inflammatory response .
Other ‘Healthwashed’ Foods
If you’re like many people who have gotten in on the hype of the Beyond plant-based burgers, you’re probably wondering why I’m bringing them up.
First, let’s take a look at the claims of the Beyond Burger, which include, among other items:
- 20g of plant protein per serving
- No soy
- No gluten
- Now even meatier
In addition, the number of ingredients tops 18, and includes “natural flavors”, a highly controversial addition to natural and organic foods that’s also viewed as a marketing term rather than a verifiable fact .
Also on the ingredients list is methylcellulose, a processed form of cellulose that’s extracted from wood or cotton and not digestible .
Even one of the CEOs of Whole Foods, John Mackey, says that many of these foods are “super, highly processed foods” . And with 18 ingredients, I can’t argue.
However, the plant-based burgers aren’t alone in their healthwashing labels—plant-based cheeses, yogurts, and milks are victims too. I’m not saying these foods are bad—but they do require that you read the label.
For instance, I recently started making my own plant-based butter and buying a different brand of plant-based milk because it became increasingly difficult to avoid foods with “natural flavors”.
(Manufactures aren’t required to disclose what specific “natural flavors” they use. I’ve reached out to companies to inquire what exactly their “natural flavors” include, and each one has responded but declined to say. Which makes you feel a little weird, as you can’t possibly know what you’re putting into your body.)
In addition, pea protein allergies are on the rise, and this is a common ingredient used in many of these “healthy” processed foods .
The Ups and Downs of This Healthwashing
Just because something isn’t processed doesn’t automatically mean it’s good, and just because something is processed doesn’t mean it’s automatically bad.
Everyone’s body is different. My body doesn’t tolerate gluten and is picky about most grains. I also don’t tolerate dairy, but I can eat legumes and nuts without issue. People react differently to different foods based on their health, genetics, and environment.
There are benefits to plant-based foods, of course, even if they are victims of healthwashing. Adopting more of a plant-based diet is arguably more healthy for our bodies . And the environment benefits too—even skipping animal products a few days a week can significantly reduce carbon emissions, water use, and even our generation of waste products, all while contributing to the global food supply .
But being a stickler for checking the ingredients rather than trusting marketing claims can help you be even more informed about what you’re putting in your body so you can make the best choice for your health!
So What’s the Verdict?
The verdict is that while these foods certainly have the potential to have a positive impact on the environment and our bodies, double-checking claims and verifying information for yourself can have an even more positive impact.
Diets such as vegan, gluten-free, and keto can have health benefits for people, of course. But as I found, it was so much easier to eat whole foods than it was to scrutinize 20 bread packages at the store to see if anything was actually “healthy”.
And, in the end, I think it was healthier for me too.
Highly processed foods not only aren’t sustainable in a diet, but increase our reliance on these products. And while yes, I do enjoy having a piece of toast every now and then, my daily diet is much more focused on whole foods.
Be mindful of the plant-based foods you’re buying—your body and the environment just might thank you. And you can identify health washing simply by recognizing marketing claims as just that—claims—and verifying the information for yourself.
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