The Leanwashing Index released its 2013 list of the top 5 words that should be banned from food advertising. The list was inspired by the appearance of “superfood” on Lake Superior State University’s 38th annual List of Words to be Banished.
Launched last year by EnviroMedia, the Leanwashing Index is a website that invites people to post and rate the validity of health claims made in advertising, marketing and packaging processed foods — on a scale of “authentic” to “bogus.” Claims that are exaggerated, misleading or false are examples of leanwashing, and the problem is that “it too often leads consumers to eat foods and engage in behaviors that are marketed as healthy, instead of foods and behaviors that are actually healthy.”
Without further ado, here are the 5 words that made the list this year, including a few of the more egregious examples of their misuse.
As many consumers know, there is no nutritional or legal definition of “natural” in the world of food and beverages, so manufacturers are free to use the word as they please. PepsiCo claims that its processed, carbonated beverage Sierra Mist is “natural” because the sugar used to sweeten it is derived from sugar beets. By calling Sierra Mist “the natural choice,” the company means to suggest that it is in some way healthier than the other sugar-sweetened sodas out there. Not so, of course. PepsiCo acknowledged, moreover, that the sugar beets they use are probably genetically modified.
Companies can claim that a food or beverage is “made with” real fruit or vegetables or whole grains, but it may not be “made with” much of it and it may not be good for you in any case. Take Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain Raspberry Cereal Bar, which the package says is “Made with Real Fruit & Whole Grains.” Whole grain oats and whole wheat flour do top the ingredients list, but the raspberry puree concentrate, or “real fruit,” is buried under a load of sugar in various forms (sugar, dextrose, fructose, invert sugar, corn syrup) and among many other industrial ingredients like artificial flavor, methylcellulose and red 40. Men’s Health magazine once named the cereal bar one of the 13 worst “healthy” foods in the supermarket. It’s an industrially processed cookie masquerading as a wholesome snack.
Lucky Charms makes for a rather ridiculous example of a whole grain food, but it is in fact advertised by General Mills to contain “More Whole Grain than any other ingredient!” and is labeled as a “Whole Grain First Ingredient” cereal. The second ingredient, it may not surprise anyone familiar with the “magically delicious” cereal that debuted in 1964, is marshmallows. A bowl full of rainbow sugar puffs, whatever its whole grain content, is not a healthy way to start your day.
Foods marketed and labeled as “light” are usually more processed than the original versions they are meant to stand in for. Manufacturers can’t reduce the fat or the number of calories in a food without altering its flavor, so sodium, sugar substitutes and an array of additives are often added to compensate. Lay’s Light Original Potato Chips, though advertised as fat free and with half the calories of regular potato chips, are cooked in olestra, which is not approved for sale in many countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada. It’s also supposed to interfere with the absorption of certain vitamins, which is why Frito-Lay adds vitamins A, D, E and K to the product.
“100 Calorie” was named to the list of words that should be banned from food advertising because, Leanwashing Index explains, “cookies, chips and other processed snacks are marketed in 100-calorie packages, leading consumers to believe what’s inside is a healthy choice. Many of these should be labeled ‘empty calorie’ packages.” Case in point: Nabisco’s 100 Calorie Packs of Chips Ahoy thin crisps, Oreo thin crisps and Ritz Snack Mix. These snacks may help some consumers manage their weight, but they are certainly not contributing to their overall well-being.
What words would you like to see banned from food advertising?