Could ‘health-washing’ usher in new efforts to tackle the UK’s obesity crisis?
By Grace Gbadamosi, Intern

“Fat-free”, “low-calorie”, “sugar-free”, “nutritional”: these are the words that jump out along the aisles of your local supermarket. Government statistics show an alarming 63% of adults in the UK above a healthy weight, and half struggling with obesity, so it is no wonder that the market for healthy food is so lucrative. 

This brings us to what some activists have dubbed ‘health-washing’. Like its more popular cousin ‘green-washing’, ‘health-washing’ is a term that describes when a company makes its product (typically food) appear healthier than it is. Unsuspecting consumers then purchase products in the belief that they are making a healthier choice, only to find out later that the product contains high levels of sugar, salt, or fat.

Campaigners against ‘health-washing’ point out that one of its most insidious aspects is that it can be challenging for consumers to identify. Many products have packaging that is designed to appear healthy, featuring phrases such as “all-natural”, “low-fat” or “no added sugar”. However, these claims can be misleading, and in some cases, outright false. For example, a product that is marketed as “low-fat” may still be high in sugar, leaving its overall health benefits in doubt. 

Recent developments suggest these concerns are not just theoretical. Last year, it was revealed by Action Against Salt that over 50% of ‘flagship’ products manufactured by several global food companies would be considered unhealthy by UK food nutritional regulations and given a red colour coded warning label. Despite this, almost two-thirds of products included in the survey displayed nutritional, health and sustainability-based claims as part of their product description. 

The UK is a country where the percentage of children with obesity in their first year of school has risen by nearly 50% in one year, and on current trends more than 80% of children born in 2022 who survive to 65 will be overweight or obese. Meanwhile, excess weight costs the UK taxpayer £74 billion each year. Sobering figures like these alongside recent ‘health-washing’ scandals shine a light on the scale of the response that campaigners say is needed.

Many would argue that food producers should be among the first to act, as they tread the thin line between ‘creative’ marketing practices and misleading claims, and there are signs that this is starting to happen. For example, Action Against Salt has highlighted Danone as one company which has been better at providing consumers with accurate information. Surely if a leading brand such a Danone can make progress in this area, then others should be able to follow suit?

Whilst the ball is currently very much in the industry’s court, not least given the shrinking timetable to introduce any new legislation before the next election, failure to act could lead to more radical action, for example from a future Labour government. Shadow Health and Social Care Secretary Wes Streeting has recently said he is “not tin-eared enough” to suggest new anti-obesity rules as food costs are rising, but if inflation eases by the time the next election rolls around, this could all change.

Even in the short-term, the current UK Government has already taken steps to crack down on false health claims in advertising and marketing, and can take action to introduce new food and drink labelling and presentation requirements through powers in the recent Health and Care Act, meaning that action before the next poll cannot be ruled out.

The obesity crisis seems only to be growing in severity, whilst the window for voluntary measures by industry to tackle it may already be closing, particularly with a change in government potentially on the cards. 

As well as taking decisive steps in light of recent ‘health-washing’ controversies and the obesity crisis, learning from existing good practice, there is also a need for the food industry to ensure they have a clear communications strategy to generate broad understanding of the action they’re taking. Otherwise, what is likely to be perceived as disproportionate legislative and regulatory action will be difficult to avoid further down the line.

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