Monday, 14 January 2013


When I was a child my grandmother sometimes felt the urge to whitewash. A bucket of lime and water was mixed and a clean, chemical odour filled the back yard. No finesse was needed, just a rough and ready paintbrush and a strong arm. She would disappear into the outside toilet and attack its walls. Grime, dust, fly-dirt, cobwebs and unwary spiders were swiftly smothered in a pristine, gritty layer. Then she would look around to see where the remains in the bucket could be deployed. Round the outside drains, on the walls near the bins, anywhere else? I could tell she found it satisfying to turn dingy areas hygienically white, without the fuss of proper decorating.
Whitewash covered a multitude of sins and it has come to mean anything that deliberately conceals mistakes or faults.
Much more recently the word “greenwash” was coined.  If you haven’t come across this term, it means: disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image. An extreme example might be an oil company boasting about their track record on recycling while planning to despoil vast tracts of Alaskan wilderness.
One of the aims of this blog is to bring you examples of "healthwash", which I'm defining as disinformation included in marketing, advertising and packaging, so as to present a healthy image.
There's a lot of it about in the aisles of the supermarket. You know the sort of thing. A product claims to contain a substance that has a healthy reputation, or to be “free from” something that has an unhealthy reputation. Thus the brand is health-washed. The aim is, of course, to convince busy shoppers that they are making a healthy choice. There is an armada of buzzwords and phrases that bombard us again and again – vitamins, minerals, five-a-day, antioxidants, fibre, grains, fruit, unsaturated, free-from, low in, part-of-a-healthy-diet and so on. Despite a recent tightening of the rules on health claims on food packaging there is still wide use of these many of these terms.
Then there’s the fuzzier stuff :- natural, all-natural, pure, country, home-cooked, hand-cooked, wholesome, herbal and so on - all of them suggesting an association with health.
Lets face it, eating a healthy diet consists of consuming moderate quantities of uncomplicated foods, preferably prepared at home, from fresh ingredients. When you are eating healthily you can usually see exactly what you’re eating. Most of the complications occur with manufactured foods that contain a long list of ingredients.
When you buy something in a packet, a jar or a tin there is a lot of small print  (often very small indeed) about nutrition. This information is not easy to understand. The terminology varies (Vitamin C or ascorbic acid? Salt or sodium?) and it changes over time. No sooner do you understood the idea that saturated fats are bad and un-saturates good, than you have to get you head around the various Omegas and their relative merits.
Then you have to mentally juggle the amount of nutrients per 100gms, the amounts of nutrient per serving, and the percentage of your recommended daily consumption that this amount represents. And then there is calculation of how the recommended serving size compares to the amount in the packet. You need an A* grade in your GCSE Maths to stand a chance of working out the relative health benefits of a product. Degrees in chemistry and statistics would also come in quite handy.
If you studied all the labels while filling your supermarket trolley, you would be there for hours. You’d need a magnifying glass to read the labels and a calculator to work out the maths.
So it's inevitable that most of us look at the headlines - those enticing words, designed to suggest that we are buying something reasonably healthy. Words that are carefully chosen to cast a veil over less unhealthy aspects of the product and create, instead, a shiny, healthy glow. Watch out for future blogs that will highlight the truth behind the healthwash and help you to become a more sceptical shopper.

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