Are You Being Healthwashed?

High in antioxidants! Low in fat! Contains vitamins and minerals!

When last did you purchase a product because it claimed to have ‘good’ nutrients? Did you diligently add it to your diet, no matter how expensive or unfamiliar it was, or how bad it tasted?

When last did you give up something that tastes delicious, brings back childhood memories, or connects you to your culture because it has carbs, sugar, fat, or something else that has been deemed ‘bad’ for you? Bananas, pap, roosterbrood, potatoes, avocados…I can think of a few!

In both cases, you may have been ‘health-washed.’ This is a term used when marketing in the food industry villainises or romanticises nutrients in an attempt to make us believe that something is very nutritious, whilst negating the less healthful ingredients also present in that food. For example, some flavoured waters claim to be sugar-free, but may contain artificial sweeteners and preservatives - completely defeating the purpose.  This approach uses misleading or inappropriate claims to present potentially harmful products to the wellness space under a ‘healthy’ guise.


Studies have shown that food product labels influence consumer food choices. As health and wellness consumer trends continue to grow, consumers want to understand an ingredient list without having to Google it in the middle of the store. We want to see ingredients that match what we have in our kitchens at home.


But there are times when we shop in a hurry, and look for keywords on labels to quickly guide our decisions. Products claiming  to be ‘natural’, ‘healthy’, or even ‘vegan’ quickly make their way into our baskets. The Consumer Protection Act states that consumers are not to be misled. But are these claims regulated?


The South African labelling regulations (R.146/2010, as amended) provide clear guidance on which ‘free of the baddies’ and ‘high in the goodies’ statements are allowed. Although most health claims about food products are prohibited by the Regulation, certain terms, like ‘natural’, can be made if certain criteria are met. This particular claim means that the product is ‘produced by nature, not the work of man or interfered with by man’. Coconut water can be described as ‘natural’, as it is a single food, to which nothing has been added and that has only been subject to processing (e.g. fermentation, pasteurisation, or freezing) that allows the food to be suitable for human consumption. But an energy drink that has a list of ingredients that more closely resembles rocket fuel could not be described as natural.


Another claim that many associate with healthy eating is ‘vegan’.  Although there is a lack of criteria for vegan-related terms from the Regulation, it is generally accepted that these products contain no trace of animal derivatives or ingredients. But even ingredients that meet the criteria to be labelled as vegan can be potentially harmful. One such ingredient found in vegan milk alternatives and puddings is carrageenan, a common food additive extracted from red seaweed that is added as a thickening agent. But some scientists believe that this seemingly harmless, nature-derived ingredient can cause inflammation and digestive problems such as bloating and irritable bowel disease.

It is clear that, without proper guidance and regulations, these terms can create opportunities to mislead consumers. Here are some ways you can avoid healthwashing the next time you shop:


  1. Arrive prepared

Plan your shopping list ahead of time to ensure that you don’t get distracted by the fancy claims and clever marketing! Have a snack before entering the store to ensure that your impulse purchases are not made out of hunger.


  1. Read the ingredient list

Paying attention to the ingredients of the product before adding it to your trolley is important. Flip the product over and read all the ingredients carefully, not just the highlights on the front label. Don’t worry - you won’t be reading every label for the rest of your life. Once you have found your pantry of products that suit your personal criteria, it will become a habit to reach for those again and again.


At Wellness Warehouse, we read the label so that you don’t have to!  We don’t allow any artificial preservatives, colourants, flavourants, or sweeteners. Our products are non-GMO and we work with our suppliers to ensure that the claims on the front of the pack meet government regulation criteria.


  1. Check for logos

If a product claims to be Organic, Diabetic-friendly, Halaal, or Kosher, look for the certifying body’s logo on the product.


  1. Read the nutritional information

‘Low in fat’ could be loaded with sugars and salt. Similarly, ‘low in sodium’ could be loaded with sugar and fats. Check the nutritional table to ensure that the product meets your nutritional needs. If you’re unsure of what these are, chat to a Wellness Warehouse Consultant at your local store or online.


  1. Be realistic

Although you may want to try lots of new and different foods, ask yourself whether these can form a part of your routine, or if they’ll gather dust in your kitchen, or worse still - hinder your progress!


Remember that food is an entire system, from soil to soul - not the sum of nutrients that it’s made out to be.

“Wellness Warehouse strives to help you live life well but because we are retailers and not medical practitioners we cannot offer medical advice. Please always consult your medical practitioner before taking any supplements, complementary medicines or have any health concerns and ensure that you always read labels, warnings and directions carefully, prior to consumption.”