Woman Hanging up the Washing

Health Washing in a Broken Food System

Nutri-Score Label, A RatingMomentum seems to be growing for more explicit labeling of healthy and unhealthy foods. The Nutri-Score system has gained acceptance in Europe, albeit with some opposition along the way. It is a five color nutrition label that gives a product a score ranging from A to E. Originating in France, the European Commission and the WHO recommend it. So we wonder, will it have any effect of nudging food systems toward a healthier food environment? Or will it turn out to be an elaborate exercise of health washing in a broken global food system?

Is It Really Healthy?

Writing in Scientific American, Tess Joosse tells us that food labeling has become quite misleading:

“Today’s grocery store aisles are overflowing with ‘healthy,’ ‘whole grain,’ and ‘all natural’ treats and snacks. But when you take a closer look at the nutrition facts and ingredients, some of these foods are actually packed with sugar, fat, salt or artificial flavors.”

Thus, the movement toward a simple, objective scoring system for the front of food packages has great appeal. New legislation in the U.S. Congress might nudge FDA toward such a system. But have no doubt, it would stir a lot of controversy along the way. FDA has been working on a definition of “healthy” for food labels since 2016. The agency is still working on it and we’re not holding our breath for a final answer.

The problem, as Chantal Julia and colleagues explain in a recent paper, is that a tidy dichotomy of healthy versus unhealthy foods “raises multiple questions.” The deeper you dig, the tougher those questions are to resolve.

Washing Away Health Washing?

So here we are, awash in subtle claims about healthy food products in a broken food system that prods us to consume ever more of supposedly healthy stuff. Right now, health claims on food products amount to health washing – positioning companies and their products as promoting good health, while contributing to precisely the opposite outcome.

So we have doubts that something like the Nutri-Score system will solve the primary problem with our broken food system. A recent paper in Appetite concisely states the reason for our reservations:

“It offers the potential to boost sales of healthy products, without affecting sales of unhealthy products.”

So long as the primary driver of food systems is to lead the population to consume ever larger quantities of food, those systems will promote obesity and poor metabolic health. We need a more fundamental change than slapping beautiful symbols on the front of food packages.

Food systems must shift away from leading us to eat more and toward a goal to eat better. Anything less is just health washing.

Click here for research on the Nutri-Score system, here for more on food labeling in the U.S., and here for more on health washing. For more on the need to shift from more to better in food systems, click here.

Woman Hanging Up the Washing, painting by Camille Pissarro / WikiArt

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August 29, 2021

2 Responses to “Health Washing in a Broken Food System”

  1. August 29, 2021 at 8:54 am, John DiTraglia said:

    “So long as the primary driver of food systems is to lead the population to consume ever larger quantities of food, those systems will promote obesity and poor metabolic health.”
    I thought we had stipulated that this was not true. Obesity doesn’t come from eating too much.

    • August 29, 2021 at 12:33 pm, Ted said:

      John, you are free to stipulate whatever you wish about what does or does not cause obesity. It will be difficult for anyone to prove you absolutely wrong. But it it clear enough that we do not have an excess of obesity because people are more often making a conscious choice to consume too much food.

      A better explanation, I believe, is that the food supply has changed to promote food consumption patterns that lead to more obesity. Some people think that this is all about things like sugar, salt, fat, and ultra-processed foods. I suspect that the relevant changes are much broader than that. If you are interested, these two posts might be helpful: