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If you’re unfamiliar with the term “health washing,” you’ll likely start to notice it pop up more and more, especially given two companies currently in the news –Nutella and Kashi – for their perceived participation in said term. “Health washing” is used to describe food companies that tout the purported health benefits of their product(s) in a disingenuous way. So, by either conveniently leaving out the potential health pitfalls of the product or simply relying on the ignorance of the consumer and the sway of advertising to sell products that might not actually be healthful. This, of course, is subjective and depends on your own definition of healthful.

 

 

The Nutella Case: Your Front Label is Lying by Omission

Ferrero – the manufacturer of Nutella – is now $3 million in the hole with half a mil going to a plaintiff in San Diego, CA who has sued the company for deceptive advertising and $2.5 mil going to class action recipients (you can get in on the action if you bought a jar between August 1, 2009 and January 23, 2012). You can read the full complaint here.

From the Yahoo! Finance article:

Ferrero, the company that manufactures the highly addictive yet apparently not terribly healthy spread, has settled a $3 million lawsuit filed in February 2011 by San Diego mom Athena Hohenberg. Hohenberg, it seems, believed that Nutella was a great dietary choice for her four-year-old daughter. She claimed the company’s advertising — particularly giving TV-ad viewers the idea that Nutella was part of a nutritious breakfast — led to her erroneous perception.

I have read articles and blog posts that claim the only thing we can learn from this case is that “stupid people can have smart lawyers,” others have called the suit frivolous and some come to the defense of the plaintiff by nothing that in our corrupt food system the only recourse we have to effect change is to use the legal system since food companies are failing to hold themselves accountable. Either way, Nutella has lost the case and will now include info on the fat, sugar and calories of the product on its front label (perhaps all products should have this information on the front label, too?).

The plaintiff argued that the Nutella TV ad is misleading. Here it is so that you can form your own opinion.

The female announcer’ voice says, “with a balanced breakfast, a glass of milk, a piece of fruit and two pieces of toast with Nutella, it’s amazing what they [your kids] can do.”

I can understand how one might extrapolate from this ad that Nutella is healthful, but note that the announcer certainly doesn’t say, “with a balanced breakfast, a glass of milk, a piece of fruit and two pieces of toast with Nutella, it’s amazing how healthy your kids will be.” She also doesn’t say how much Nutella to spread on the toast. She doesn’t say, “eat our sugar-free Nutella!”

I’ll be honest – Nutella isn’t a purist’s dream food, but not all of us are food purists, and, frankly, some of us choose to indulge. It comes down to being a smart and mindful consumer – and knowing that you are making a choice and what its implications are, wouldn’t you say?

These are Nutella’s ingredients:
sugar, modified palm oil, hazelnuts, cocoa, skim milk, reduced minerals whey (from milk), soy lecithin: an emulsifier, vanillin: an artificial flavor.

The first ingredient is sugar, which means that sugar makes up the most weight of the product compared to its other ingredients. In other words, you don’t want to spoon-feed this to your infant for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It also has palm oil, which is high in sat. fat and sourcing it is pretty destructive of the rain forest (though, Nutella does tell its consumers via its FAQ page that it’s a member of the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), and “only uses palm oil which is extracted from controlled plantations in Malaysia”). It also has artificial aka ALIEN, flavors (i.e. vanillin).

If you’re so inclined, you can picture that one serving of two tablespoons (37g) of Nutella has 21 grams of sugar. Compare this to a Snickers bar (which tends to be about 57g), which has 28.8g sugars. If you break that down per gram, Nutella actually has more sugar per gram of product, with 0.57g sugars per gram of the product, than Snickers, which has 0.50g sugars per gram of product. Basically, one serving of Nutella is more than double the amount of sugar allowance for children ages 4 to 8.

Here’s my stance: Consumers – that’s you and me – need to be more food “literate.” In other words, we have to learn that personal responsibility is vital when it comes to food consumption even if only because food companies have become increasingly sly in their marketing. We should all consider the front of a food label the online dating profile version of the food where all of its positive qualities are listed (and usually exaggerated, eh?). Consider the actual nutrition label on the back, with the nutrition facts and ingredients, the actual truth. Then, after having viewed the good, the bad and the ugly, decide if you want to take this food home.

 

The Kashi Case: Some Consumers Say Your Version of “Natural” Ain’t Natural

 

Kashi, who is owned by Kellogg’s, has consistently marketed itself as a healthful company. One small grocer in Rhode Island started the Kashi controversy when he posted a note, in the place of where he used to stock Kashi cereals, telling his customers that he wouldn’t sell the cereal because it had come to his attention (via the Cornucopia Institute) that the brand uses GMOs & non-organic ingredients. Someone took a picture of the note and the rest is, as we say, viral history.

The controversy lies predominantly in Kashi’s use of the term “natural” in its advertising and packages, especially in light of the fact that it uses GMOs and ingredients that are not organic. Kashi, however, is not doing anything illegal. The term “natural” is meaningless from a legal perspective since there are no USDA or FDA regulations specifying what a natural product is or, more importantly, regulating the use of the term. The FDA says, “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” This is still widely subjective, but I’d wager that many consumers would actually argue that GMOs are synthetic substances.

According to Fooducate, one in four new products launched in 2010 had a label claiming it was “Natural.” But consumers are becoming more and more cognizant of this potential loophole and demanding more regulation. According to Food Navigator:

Consumers on the lookout for eco-friendly claims are skeptical about the term ‘natural’, and two-thirds would favor a uniform standard to certify natural claims, according to a new survey.

In Elizabeth Weise’s reporting via USA Today, David Desouza, Kashi’s general manager believes Kashi is not in the wrong. “The FDA has chosen not to regulate the term ‘natural.'” Weise writes, “The company [Kashi] defines natural as ‘food that’s minimally processed, made with no artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or sweeteners.’”

The larger and more complex question is what should be done with food marketing and food labeling in general. What I see as the biggest con to food advertising is that consumers have become accustomed to listening and relying on the food companies to tell them why they should eat their products rather than relying on their own research. The truth of the matter is that the only thing that will save both consumers and food companies is true transparency. We have a right to know if there are GMOs in our foods (you can try to make this happen here) and the FDA should consider putting restrictions on what can qualify as “natural” because, right now, it’s a rogue label and it’s screwing with all of us.

Annabel Adams

Communications Director at HUMAN Healthy Vending
Annabel Adams is a Los Angeles-based writer and the blogger behind Feed Me, I'm Cranky where she tackles food and obesity politics. To fuel her barefoot running and powerlifting, Annabel loves to snack on anything vegan she can get her hands on. Annabel has been featured in Cosmopolitan, Fitness, Health, and Redbook magazines.
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