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Are you a victim of healthwashing? (Find out the ways food companies trick you)

When I first started researching ingredients and food over 8 years ago, the industry was so different than it is now…

More people are aware of what’s in their food – we’re reading ingredient lists, juicing, taking supplements, and eating more real food. That’s why we’re now seeing a wave of new “healthy” products flooding the market as some food brands are hoping to cash in on the health food movement… 

But some brands aren’t going about it the right way.

You’ve heard of greenwashing, right? That’s when a company makes their product appear more environmentally-friendly than it really is. Well, the same is happening to our food. Health-washing is EVERYWHERE.

“Health-washing” is when a food company adds synthetic and processed additives to food to make it appear healthier and more nutrient dense than it actually is. Food companies will also add specific labels to the packaging, which imply a product is healthier than it actually is. 

They are targeting people like you with these products, people who care about their food and are trying to make the healthiest decisions. Health-washing is getting RAMPANT out there – that’s why you need to know how companies do this so you can protect yourself. Here are 6 ways food brands health-wash their products:

#1. They add synthetic vitamins & minerals to artificially pump up the nutrient content.

8Greens tells you it’s got “As much Vitamin C as 6 Oranges”… “As much Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid) as 15 cups of Broccoli”… and “As much Vitamin B6 as 6 cups of Spinach”… but actually these nutrients in 8Greens are NOT coming from oranges, broccoli, or spinach. 8Greens adds in synthetic vitamins (i.e. artificial vitamins) that are made in a laboratory. Deceitful right? 

“The eight greens themselves (spinach, wheatgrass, kale, blue green algae, spirulina, chlorella, barley grass and aloe vera) naturally contain vitamins, but we have added extra vitamins to make sure that 8Greens is a more effective supplement. These are those extra vitamins and minerals that you see added to our formula and listed on the nutrition label. These extra vitamins on the label are synthetic… Any naturally occurring vitamins are not listed and such breakdown isn’t available however our green proprietary blend is 686 mg per tablet.” – 8Greens Customer Support (June 2019)

Right on the package it says “Made from Real Greens” but really the majority of the product is coming from synthetic vitamins. How much actual “greens” are you feasibly eating in that small 8Greens pill? You’d be getting a lot more by drinking a green smoothie, I can tell you that much! Products like this make consumers feel like they are getting their daily greens, but in reality, it is just a high-priced synthetic vitamin supplement. 

Now, you might be thinking this doesn’t matter. All vitamins are healthy, right? Not if they are made in a lab from a variety of questionable sources like coal tar, petroleum and GMOs. Lab-created vitamins differ from their natural counterpart, and thus aren’t often believed to be absorbed by your body as well as naturally present vitamins that you get from whole food and supplements with vitamins derived naturally from whole foods (1). Natural vitamins still contain cofactors that aid in absorption and bioavailability – enzymes, bioflavonoids, minerals, etc. Real food and natural vitamins are always best.

Here’s another example…

Good Health Veggie Pretzels look like snack-time gold! Right there on the package, they tell you you’re getting the same amount of Vitamin A as 2 ½ cups of broccoli… the Vitamin C in 3 ½ beets… the Vitamin E in 5 tomatoes… the Vitamin B6 in 7 cups spinach… and the Vitamin K in 2 carrots. Wow – sounds like you’ll be eating a ton of produce, huh? Nope. Turns out they are playing the same dirty trick as 8Greens by just adding all those synthetic vitamins in to make it look like you are getting nutrients from real food. MAJOR FAIL.

#2. They add probiotics to unhealthy sugary foods.

Adding probiotics to a Double Chocolate Muffin full of sugar doesn’t make it better for you. It’s widely known that sugar destroys good gut bacteria (2)… and sugar is literally the first ingredient in these FlapJacked Double Chocolate Mighty Muffins, essentially negating benefits that you might be getting from the probiotics added.

The FDA is not regulating how much (if any) actual living probiotics are in products like this (3). Probiotics are fragile living organisms that are typically killed by heat, so the type FlapJacked uses is heat-resistant designed to survive heavy processing (4)… but that doesn’t mean I’m not skeptical that nuking a Mighty Muffin in the microwave on high (their recommended cooking method) isn’t going to kill many of the probiotics. They claim the microwaved muffins have been tested and contain live probiotics. Either way – Wouldn’t you rather get your probiotics from healthy fermented foods and high quality probiotic supplements than from sugary processed muffins? There are much healthier and cost-effective ways to get your probiotics in each day and this is just one way food companies try to “health-ify” junky food. 

#3. They use the Certified Organic label on unhealthy food, especially targeted towards children.

There’s no doubt that organic food is the safest choice and I’m a huge advocate of organic farming. That being said… some organic brands make some really unhealthy products. This is where the organic label can be a bit deceptive. Many people equate “organic” with “healthy” – but that is not always the case. Even worse – I often see the most unhealthy organic products made especially for babies and children. Shouldn’t they be starting out with the healthiest food? If you find yourself assuming organic products are healthy and buying them without reading the ingredients, just remember to repeat after me: The organic label does not mean a product is healthy… 

Clif Bar Organic ZFruit Strawberry Snack is made with ZERO strawberries (maybe that is what the “Z” stands for? LOL).

To make ZFruit, they use heavily processed apple “concentrates” and flavor it to taste like strawberries because it’s cheaper to produce, but this is wrong because people assume they’re feeding their kid’s strawberries. People also think it’s a healthy snack for their child because it is “Organic” – but in reality – it’s heavily processed, full of sugar, and hardly has any nutrient value. 
 
Apple concentrates are not the same as whole apples. To make a concentrate, fruit puree or juice is heated into a syrup, which makes them higher in sugar, lower in fiber, and lower in nutrients than whole fruit. According to Vasanti Malik, a research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, people should view fruit concentrate as an added sugar, similar to high-fructose corn syrup (5). 
 

To illustrate this… a Clif Bar ZFruit (made with apple puree concentrate and juice concentrate) contains 14 grams of sugar and less than 1 gram of fiber. They add in synthetic Vitamin C (ascorbic acid). If you were to eat 1⁄2 cup real strawberries instead, you’d eat only 4 grams of sugar with about 2 grams of fiber – and lots of valuable vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients. This is why whole fruit is best. 

Stonyfield says YoBaby is “Made with only organic whole milk and the kind of ingredients you would use yourself” – Ummm not true. I wouldn’t add refined white sugar and “natural” flavors to yogurt…especially if I was feeding it to my baby (6). It’s super simple to add “flavor” to plain grass-fed yogurt at home by stirring in some mashed berries or bananas…YUM…and no sugar needed.  

UPDATE 8/29/19 – I received the following from Stonyfield in response to this investigation:

“We saw your recent post regarding natural flavors and organic sugar in our YoBaby Vanilla yogurt and I wanted to send along some additional information for context.

All of the natural flavors we use in our products are always derived exclusively from natural sources like spices, fruits or fruit juices, vegetables or vegetable juices, and plants. We choose our suppliers very carefully to make sure that they are as committed as we are to producing natural flavors without the use of any artificial components.

Regarding sugar, the sugar we do add is organic sugar, because we never use artificial ingredients and would never use artificial sweeteners – both of which are not allowed with organic as you know. Maybe most importantly, we do offer three lines of baby yogurt that have zero added sugar – our YoBaby Banana Mango, YoBaby Purple Carrot /Sweet Potato, and YoBaby plain. We feel it’s important to offer several flavors and plain, all without added sugar.

We care about the amount of sugar that people consume, including in our yogurts. In fact, this is why we reduced sugar across our entire portfolio, starting with our Kids brand in 2017. Stonyfield Kids yogurt has up to 40% less than the leading kids brand of yogurt. You can read more here: https://www.stonyfield.com/organic/healthy/sugar-reduction

Ultimately though we offer the choice to the consumer, and offer almost 100 different organic products. And, for those who do want to restrict their sugar intake, we offer plain versions of our nonfat, lowfat, whole milk and Greek yogurt without any added sugar in addition to the YoBaby yogurts I mentioned above.

I hope this helps provide a bit more context for you! We greatly respect the work you do to educate consumers around the world about their food choices, and we want to make sure you were up to date with information around our yogurts.”

Little Duck Organics Fig Bars are the perfect example of how some organic brands make healthy products, while also making some not so healthy ones. I’ve bought products by Little Duck before, but I wouldn’t buy these. When you look closely at the ingredient list you’ll find 4 types of added sugar before any actual blueberries or kale (Brown Rice Syrup, Dried Cane Juice, Concentrated Apple Juice, Coconut Palm Sugar) along with unhealthy refined canola oil and lots of processed flours/starches (1). You’ve got to wonder how much blueberry and kale are really in these too – I bet it’s negligible. On the other hand, Little Duck also makes “Tiny Fruits” that are simply 100% freeze-dried organic fruit that I buy for my daughter Harley as a little snack to have on trips or when we go out to an event. 

#4. They add protein to products with risky ingredients.

Taking a super unhealthy product and adding extra protein to it does not transform it into a health food – especially when it’s soy protein isolate. When soy is isolated to just its protein state, it becomes severely denatured and can cause hormonal disruptions because of the excessive amount of estrogen contained in it (1). Soy also contains an abundance of phytic acid, which leaches calcium and other vital minerals from your body. Plus – over 90% of the soy produced in this country is GMO and contaminated with Roundup herbicide. Kellogg’s Special K Protein Cereal is also spiked with refined sugar, fake flavors, and BHT (a preservative linked to cancer)(7) – not a good protein-packed way to begin your mornings. Try a healthy green protein smoothie instead!

Protein-infused Protein20 water looks like a health supplement, but it’s sweetened with one of the worst sweeteners out there – Sucralose (aka Splenda). This artificial sweetener is linked to leukemia and other blood cancers in animal studies (1). It’s also been shown that artificial sweeteners like Sucralose are doing little to help people lose weight and are actually linked to weight gain (1).

The type of protein in these is another popular protein supplement – conventional whey protein isolate – which is highly processed. Most whey protein isolates start from ultra-pasteurized “Monsanto Milk” raised on GMOs, antibiotics, and other drugs. This milk is then exposed to acid processing, which strips out alkalizing minerals and naturally occurring vitamins and lipids. This processing makes whey protein isolate overly acidifying in the body. And, chronically consuming whey protein isolate without appropriate balance of alkalizing foods can acidify your body, which over time can increase your vulnerability to degenerative disease.

#5. They imply their product contains healthy fruit, even when it doesn’t. 

Despite that big strawberry on the cup, there is not one strawberry in there. “Two Good” yogurt by Dannon is extra processed to remove natural sugars in the milk and then flavored and colored to look and taste like there is fruit in it – but it’s all fake. They also add thickeners (tapioca starch, gellan gum) to replace some texture lost from all that processing. Natural flavors used to make it taste like fruit are not actually “natural” at all (6). These fake flavors are made in a lab to mimic the taste of fruit and are designed to keep you coming back to eat more. As explained by flavor manufacturer Nature’s Flavors, “The trick to making a product taste good is to give the customer only enough flavor to tease their taste buds. You never want to completely satisfy their tastes” (8). Do you really want to eat fake flavors that were manufactured to keep you unsatisfied and wanting more, or would you rather just eat real fruit and all the nutrients that come with it? 

#6. They add processed fibers to increase the fiber content.

Sara Lee and BFree say their products are good sources of fiber, but they add cellulose to artificially pump up the fiber content. The type of cellulose that food companies typically use is made from wood. Cellulose is much cheaper to obtain from wood than fruits and vegetables, and is manipulated in a laboratory to form different structures (liquid, powder, etc) depending upon the food product it is used in (9). According to the Center For Science In The Public Interest, cellulose is a cheap way to boost the fiber content on food labels, but it isn’t as healthful as fiber that comes from natural foods (10). Recent research links this additive to weight gain, inflammation and digestive problems (11). Get your fiber from whole grains, fruits & veggies instead.

I’m so sick of seeing products like this, and that’s one reason I launched Truvani. We don’t health-wash our products…

We’re not gonna add probiotics to sugary snacks…

We’re not gonna add protein to junk food…

We’re not gonna add fake vitamins to chips…

We’re not gonna add wood to bread…

We’re not gonna use the tricks that Big Food uses to pull one over on you.

From the very start, Truvani’s mission has been simple: Real food without added chemicals. Products without toxins. Labels without lies. We will be transparent with our ingredient sourcing and pick the best ingredients available. 

I make sure that every product created is with integrity and not some “fluff” product to make money. Don’t you wish there were more companies like this? We are working as fast as we can to bring more healthy products to market for you… and I have EXCITING NEWS:

Truvani is launching BRAND NEW products on July 17th. Be the first to find out what they are: Sign up here

Voting with our dollars is one of the most important things we can do to change the food system. Now, I am finally able to create the healthy products that I always wanted to see in stores, not just for myself – but for you too. Your support is making this all possible.

Can you guess what our new products will be? What do you want us to create next? Tell me in the comments! Here’s a HINT from our product video shoot…

And, don’t forget to sign up here to get first dibs on our new products!

Xo,

Vani

P.S. If you know anyone who might be falling for junk food disguised as health food, please hit share on this post! 

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35 responses to “Are you a victim of healthwashing? (Find out the ways food companies trick you)

  1. Good article Vani. I am sooo tired of seeing products like this, and “health-washing” is precisely the word for it. As you can see, most all these items are products – in one way or another – of BIGFood. They are trying their best to ‘get with the program’ on more healthful products that (most) people want; but more times than not, they are failing. I personally stay away from anything offered from the BIGFood companies – even if it “appears” to be okay!

  2. YAYAYAYAYA!!!!!!!!!!!! You DO read our emails! This was one of my suggestions when you asked us what kind of investigations we want to see and I suggested we do more to expose brands that seem like there all organic and healthy, when their not. Thanks for doing this article!!! This is really helpful and good advice for those who are on the right track with going organic but are still falling for the pretty logo’s on the package that claim its all healthy and safe to eat. ALWAYS READ THE INGREDIENTS LIST ON EVERYTHING YOU EAT!!! As soon as you read your first ingredient you know is unhealthy, put that product down and move on! Thanks Vani!!!

  3. I think you should highlight wheat products due to the Roundup use and potato products due to them being a ‘dead’ crop if not organically grown as well. Keep up the great work!

    1. Most organically grown wheat is the modern hybrid wheat developed in the 1960s and spread around the Western world to grow by all1985. If you eat wheat it should be heirloom such as khorasan. Kamut® is always organic as it is in its description. It easy to find as puffed wheat, harder to find but available especially the flour on azurestandard.com which sends a freight truck to 38 states every four weeks. Make your own pancakes, waffles, bread, biscuits with Kamut® Flour.

      1. I tried einkorn ancient wheat as well and it tasted great. However, keep in mind that even ancient grains like einkorn contain lectins.

        Great article, Vani! The sugars are a major problem in most manufactured foods like you stated. Whether it’s organic cane sugar or toxic sucralose, aspartame, etc., they’re all bad. Nature made it to be eaten from the sugar cane plant itself, not from a bowl of processed sugar from the cane, organic or otherwise. John Yudkin’s 1970’s book “Pure, White and Deadly”.

  4. Why is kale in a fruit product? It is an autoimmune food problem for me and others I’m sure. Also conventional kale is #4 on ewg.org Dirty Dozen list this year. What is the worst to see is that almost 50% of all this adulterated food is wasted now.

  5. A few months ago, I had a really bad cold/flu, I felt terrible. The first thing I thought to do to feel better was to get healthy food! I was so disgusted when at the grocery store, I was looking for a few things that would be easy to fix, like heating up some canned soup or something very simple to make. Almost every item had horrible ingredients! There really was not anything that didn’t have chemicals in it or added junk! I felt completely lost, as there was nothing I could buy pre-made that would be super easy and comforting to eat, without cooking everything from scratch. So disappointing that food manufacturers only care about the bottom line and are so deceptive.

    1. Gosh Angie you are so right!!! You feel so crappy and all you want is some convenience and unless you live by a wonderful healthy food store (which I am not) you have 0 to pick from. I get Dr. Axe Bone Broth powder for those times when I just can’t make broth from scratch. Its pricey but it lasts a long time.

  6. Thank you. I feel like I just end up shaking my head when I go to the grocery store and try to buy something pre-made. It is so frustrating. I appreciate your articles and have learned a lot.

  7. Thank you very much for posting this. I am exasperated by how this is even legal. Whatever happened to ‘false advertising’ ? Do companies not get into trouble anymore?

  8. I don’t buy any of these product. You really nailed it in “Feeding You Lies” when you said not to believe the front of the packaging, but look for the ingredients on the back. This false advertising makes me mad, but your “read the ingredients on the back” advice gives us, the consumers, a way to control what we eat. Thanks for all that you are doing for those of us who want to eat healthy.

  9. and so many people are deceived by these labels – i’ve been on grocery lines in stores and i’ve literally told people that the cellulose in many food products is wood – and of course they look at me like i’m nuts, but i don’t care!

    1. If I see an obese person with diet soda in their cart, I tell them these will cause them to put on weight. And of course they look at me like I’m nuts, but I don’t care. If you see someone drowning in a river, you would reach out your hand to them, wouldn’t you? They’ve been warned. Maybe they will think about it and do some research. You never know.

      I talked my sister into dropping the aspartame and sucralose in favor of stevia, but when I saw her recently, she was drinking diet soda because nothing else was available in the restaurant (except water). And she is still obese. Just too heartbreaking for words.

      1. The phosphoric acid in it ruins bone density leaving individuals susceptible to fractures or breakage of hips. Try to get her to stop.

  10. Thank you, Vani & all, for keeping us apprised of BigFoods’ attempts at creating fake foods and advertising them as “natural” & chock full ‘o what’s good for us when they really aren’t healthy at all. Decades ago, I asked my doctor to recommend a good natural vitamin C supplement. He smiled and replied, “Have you considered eating an orange?” He then went on to lecture me about processed vitamins and how processing to extract vitamins leaves micro particles of metal etc in the final product. He told me that a camera company (name withheld here) owned the patents on vitamin E extraction. For years I followed his advice and then fell victim of my tastebuds. Thankfully, Vani I finally followed your regimen, cleaned out my cupboards and fridge, dropped 50 lbs, and now read labels and eat a lot more live (organic) food.

  11. You Are Just Fantastic Vani!

    Thank You For All The Great Work You do To Help Protect The People.

    Take Good Care!

  12. Keep up the good work Vani. I follow the Feingold food list pretty strictly to find foods with no petroleum derivites, no corn syrup, and no MSG. Food companies can include these ingredients without putting them on the ingredients list. Don’t you love all the legal loopholes. And I cook a lot from scratch and from my home garden.
    Elvie

  13. I think we are so desperate for convenient “healthy” foods we think, oh it has mostly good ingredients so it OK. I cannot tolerate a lot of real or unprocessed healthy foods, like nuts, butters, almond flour, dates, bananas, most fruit except for berries. I guess you can say I’m lucky because I don’t eat ANY foods that are packaged, just because I can’t tolerate them but, I still find myself picking up the so called healthy packaged foods hoping to see on the ingredients, no natural flavors, sugar, or gums. Thanks for the reminder that we can’t be desperate in eating convenient foods just because they say its healthy. They are out for the buck not our health.

  14. Here in the UK things aren’t as rosy as I once thought thanks to Food Babe, my pet hate at the moment are products labelled with the old classic no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives, yet like the Ascorbic Acid mentioned in the article some products are sneaking in artificial ingredients that are not classed as artificial colours, flavours or preservatives.

    This is so wrong and needs to stop, if not for us, for the sake of future generations.

  15. Thank you for sharing. Super important information. Organic does not always mean healthy, people! Read read read read the damn labels !!

  16. This problem of mislabeling is not just in foods processed for human consumption but for pet foods. I have been reading labels on foods much more carefully since I started following the Food Babe and just recently turned my attention to pet food after the sudden loss of my pet ferret from a condition that had to do with a chemical reaction to products in his foods ( and I was using top-line products). Now I am looking for the best-made products for my new pet ( a cat this time) t prevent future problems

    1. Many artificial ingredients have different names from their natural counterparts. You just have to learn the names, and which ones are artificial. Also, it helps to spend the time to determine who health washes, and stay away from their products entirely. They need to get the message. They will not lure us in with a few good products. They need to change their entire method of operating. I don’t even go into a conventional grocery store more than a few times a year. It’s simply too much effort to find something truly healthy. I go to Trader Joe’s (Aldi) and Sprouts, and my entire diet comes from these stores.

  17. I try real hard to read ingredients in packaged foods and also try my hardest to stay away from them but I’m concerned about what to feed our soon to be new addition to our family a puppy, as we care about what goes into our body we are also wondering what is the best puppy food out there. Any suggestions?

  18. Great work as always Vani!! Thabk you for bringing light to all this health washing. Just cause it’s organic does not mean it’s healthy. Read ingridients, eat packaged food rarely and stay abreast of research by reading articles like this one! God bless

  19. Mary we do tundra from origin. It’s about 120 dollars for bag but our dog thrives on it and her tummy feel good and skin looks great. It’s hard finding a dog food that is 100 percent real food based

  20. Vani, make your own health product for everything lol. It is so hard to keep up. I feel like I have to keep learning because I care so much about what goes into my body and especially my sons. I am not a perfect eater but when I purchase things from the grocery store I take so much time especially to buy things for my Childs school lunch. He is 13 and I am still making his lunch. I always go back to produce but it is so hard to compete with other moms that give there kids cookies and chips. Can you please help me figure a way out for him to understand this better? He is not listening to me anymore and because of his friends, he thinks I am ridiculous. And I still give him chips once in a while. I have had an adult tell me in front of my face that I am ruining him and not being a good parent by not giving him chips every day.

  21. This is what happens when General Mills buys out Clif bar… I hate how big brands see the steal the thunder of smaller businesses and changes their whole motto… Those smaller companies work hard to be everything their competitors isn’t. Especially honest with ingredients and their labels etc…(get certified usda organic). It makes me sad when those company finally gives in and “sell out” to their competitor saying they are now expanding and now “family” and under their “health portfolio” market. When in reality, the big companies tarnishes the smaller brands authenticity. Especially when those smaller brands gain the trust of consumers from the beginning and then those bigger company takes advantage of them once they acquired them to their portfolio. This goes for the same thing with General Mills buying out Annie’s Organics and Heinz-Kraft with Primal nutrition. It’s so sad how they make all these new health wash rubbish.

  22. The wood in the bread just blows my mind! I would have never thought to look out for wood being added….and why is wood necessary?!?! Also, the little ducks are sooooo disturbing. The kale and blueberry sound like a great little boost of nutrients for a kid and you can see how a busy parent would see that and think it would be a good option. It’s not ethical at all!!!

  23. This same thing irritates me when I grocery shop! I have two kids and shop with Food Babe in mind. It’s so sad to me to see ‘natural’ looking labels that advertise something ‘healthy’ but are totally full of artificial colors and flavors, and for KIDS!!! I’ve talked to so many friend about this and they will try to make healthier choices and fall in these traps! It’s so sad to see my friend that is obese and disabled falling for every lying label! She has taken some big steps in the right direction for her health though

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