I got the idea for this blog post while snacking on a few crackers I bought from the store. It goes without saying that my wife (who is a dietitian) and I are fairly health conscious when it comes our grocery store purchases, often scrutinizing nutrition labels of almost everything in our cart. But even we fall trap to a rapidly-growing, misleading strategy in food marketing called Health-Washing. Health-washing is the idea of making a packaged food item come across as healthier than it actually is. The colors on the box are particularly chosen, words and phrases are artfully crafted, and even the names of companies are used to instill an air of wholesomeness of the food product they are selling. Don’t get me wrong, not all health-washing is bad — sometimes it is just a company trying to market to a specific consumer. But at other times, it is an intentional effort to convince us that their products are good for us.
This strategy isn’t particularly new. Despite the near universal use of factory farming, meat, dairy, and cheese companies have long advertised rural farms with rolling pastures, humble farmers tending to their animals, or championing a herd of happy dairy cows that came from California. Other commonly used tactics include choosing earth-tone colors for the package, emphasizing key buzzwords (plant-based, keto, protein, natural, clean, healthy, etc), or using nature imagery (leaves, trees, pastures, farms, etc). When you walk into a grocery store these days, almost every package is basically shouting at you about how healthy it is! These strategies are trying to get you to make a split-second decision between two products, hoping that you reflexively pick the healthy-looking one rather than taking the time to scrutinize the ingredient list. We all fall for it, just as I did recently.
I talk to patients every day that feel like they are making healthy choices at the grocery store but are not seeing improvements in their health metrics. This is disheartening and can often be very difficult to solve without also knowing what items they are actually purchasing. I believe some of this difficulty can be explained by the allure of health-washing. We want to make healthy choices for ourselves and our families but are up against very smart people that just want you to buy their products.
So, we must come to the grocery store prepared! I want you to learn how to recognize marketing vs health and, most importantly, avoid unhealthy food masquerading as healthy alternatives. In the video below, I will show you the box of crackers that inspired this post and walk through this real-life example, highlighting areas of health-washing along the way.