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Healthwashing is a practice in which something is made to appear more healthy than it really is, in order to appeal to people who are concerned about health issues. Many people use the term specifically in reference to foods, although any number of products may be healthwashed, from shampoo to household cleaners. This practice has been common in many points in human history, with the nature of healthwashing shifting as societies change.
This term is closely related to “whitewashing,” a word used to describe covering something up or repurposing something to change its inner outer appearance in the hopes of hiding its inner nature. The “washing” in “whitewashing” has also been borrowed for “greenwashing,” a practice which involves making something seem more environmentally friendly than it really is. Healthwashing can be especially problematic because people are led to believe that things are healthy when in fact they can be harmful.
One of the most common forms of healthwashing is misleading labeling. For example, a food or supplement label may outright lie about its contents, or companies may pressure government agencies to allow them to use labeling which could potentially mislead consumers. “Natural flavors,” for example, pop up on many foods, leaving consumers to imagine what those flavors really are. In other cases, a product may stress claims of healthfulness, even if that particular form of the product is not very healthy.
Healthwashing also involves conscious efforts on the parts of companies and organizations to suppress information about their products which could damage their reputation. For example, many companies railed against claims that transfats were harmful, because they did not want to have to disclose the content of transfats in their foods. When proposals were made to make labeling of transfats mandatory, the baking industry in particular kicked up quite a fuss, because it wanted to continue healthwashing its products by concealing the presence of transfats.
Snack foods in particular are often healthwashed, because consumers want to be able to snack without feeling guilty. Some snacks are actually specifically marketed as health products; granola bars are a well-known example, while others simply have claims on their labels which suggest that they provide some sort of nutritional value. Healthwashing is also used to sell cleaning products and a wide variety of household goods to consumers who are worried about their health and the substances they interact with.