It is no secret that the food industry is a master of deceptive marketing. Fancy labelling and absent promises such as low fat, sugar-free and all natural are plastered over food packaging –  playing to our desire for healthy balanced food. However, the food industry is, in fact, an industry with a primary goal to get you to put that item in your basket even if it means bending the truth.

Welcome to the term ‘health washing’. This is when a company does just that and positions themselves as leaders in the crusade for good health and healthy living. However, health washing works by lying to the consumers and providing misleading information and as members of the public we believe it – why wouldn’t we. I am writing this blog yes as a bit of a rant – but mainly to encourage you all to walk down the isles of your local grocery store with a critical eye and to not be fooled into buying something that is less than nutritious and could, with consistent long-term consumption, leads to health problems for you and your family.


1) The words – They purposely use words that create an image or impression more desirable than the reality.  For example, they use a word like “artisan” which invokes the image of a skilled food craftsman for products when in reality the products are processed and factory-made.  They use the term “Made with Real…” which gives the impression that the product consists of healthier ingredients.   For example, the packaging of Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain bars includes a “made with real fruit” stamp on the front.  And while the third ingredient listed is raspberry purée concentrate, it’s mostly made up of sugar and corn syrup.

2) Pictures on the box – The box contains pictures of happy animals or nature scenes, or real fruit, nuts and seed which really have no relation to how the product was created or what is in it.

3) Smaller serving size – In order to make the product more appealing, they reduce the serving size in the nutrition box to make it seem like it contains fewer calories, saturated fats, trans fats etc. and in the trolley, it goes

4) Health Star Rating

The HSR system is designed to help you choose the healthier products by allocating a star rating from a measly half a star to a ‘nutritious’ five stars. The amount of stars depends on the type of food, it’s calories, and then also considers what they have deemed risk nutrients (saturated fats, sugars and sodium) and positive nutrients (protein, fibre and proportion of fruits/vegetables/legumes/nuts) per 100g or 100ml.

But unfortunately, this system is flawed. Let me give you an example.


Milo has a health star rating of 4.5. BUT the 4.5 star rating only applies if it is consumed with a very specific amount of skimmed milk. If the star rating was only determined on milo in isolation it scored a 1.5 stars NOT 4.5. In fact, it receives a high health star rating if eaten with ICE CREAM. But what number is on the tin. So in the trolley, it goes. The system is riddled with contradictions like this.

Clean, unsweetened Greek yoghurt sits at 1.5 starts with some lolly bags awarded a 2.5. Sugary cereals often get 4 stars, salmon sits at 3 stars while frozen beer battered chips score 4 stars.

So please, totally ignore the health star rating – we understand you may have your families best interest in mind but these manufacturers do not.

Our tips to help fight the health washing next time you brave the supermarket.

1)  Stick to the perimeter of the store – here you will avoid most packaged foods and fill your basket with the good stuff first. 

2)  Hit up your local farmers market instead – no health star ratings in sight, just great quality seasonal produce. 

3)  Ignore the front of the package and read the ingredients – this is the only part of the box worth reading. The general rule is if you are unable to buy each ingredient on the list and make it in your own kitchen (if you wanted to) then we recommend you put the box down and step away.

4) Fat-Free doesn’t mean sugar-free, Gluten-free doesn’t mean preservative free, natural doesn’t mean GMO-Free and light doesn’t mean fewer calories (it could mean light in taste).

5) Question what you put in your trolley – all you may need is a simple swap from one peanut butter to another. 

6) The flashier the health claim, the greater the chance the product has been health-washed.

7) Just because it’s in the natural-food aisle or in a health-food store does not mean it’s healthy. This also goes for speciality foods like gluten-free, kosher, dairy-free, etc.

8) If an item says whole, natural or organic,  the ingredient label should confirm it. Watch out for sneaky tricks like an asterisk that says: on certain ingredients with small print below, ingredient items that likely have their own list of ingredients.

The goal of food marketing is to get you to buy their product, not to keep you healthy. Don’t be fooled into buying something that is less than nutritious and could, with consistent long-term consumption, lead to health problems for you and your family. Keep it simple, fresh and local. 

Until Next Time, 

Dr K 

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