Have You Been Greenwashed?

            You may have noticed that many companies portray themselves as providers of organic products or as being environmentally friendly.  This practice has become such an essential part of marketing that it has been given the name greenwashing.  It’s not that these companies don’t have good intentions but rather that the substance behind many claims tends to be near insignificant.

            In an earlier era, being ‘green’ was a pejorative term as in greenhorn for a person that’s inexperienced.  Now, being green is offered as a halo of goodness when there isn’t much else to differentiate a company’s product from its competitor’s product.

            What was originally well-intentioned now has every major corporation in America posing for attention as the greener company.  The result has been a wave of greenwash advertisements that year by year becomes more numerous, more sophisticated, and less meaningful.

            In the world of marketing, few symbols of excellence maintain their credibility once everyone is on the bandwagon.  At some point, the public eventually figures out that it’s mostly marketing hype.  Perhaps you have already come to that conclusion about greenwashing.  Based on the advertising budgets still pushing the message, it appears likely that those that have detected the disconnect are still in the minority.

            By all appearances, greenwashing propaganda is still effective.  Increasingly, consumers are buying products they perceive as having a ‘green’ quality.  This propaganda is especially noticeable in the food industry.  Just know that many products claiming to be healthier or more eco-friendly are little more than greenwashed versions of products you previously used.  When you read terms like ‘all-natural,’ ‘sustainably produced,’ or view scenes depicting health and nature, the product you are considering is probably being greenwashed in the absence of any substantial nutritional or environmental improvement.

            Companies that sell snack foods typically resort to greenwashing because their products are inherently unhealthy.  For example, if you compare the ‘Natural Brand’ of potato chips to the ‘Classic’ potato chips, the nutritional difference is small.  Often the difference is the type of salt, type of oil, or thickness of the chip.  Sadly, none of these ingredient substitutions make a significant nutritional difference, and once the bag is open, you will likely overeat, regardless of which product you buy.

            So, what can be done to change the behavior of companies that mislead by greenwashing their products?  Unfortunately, there is little Government can do since the problem mostly involves vague claims.  If there is an answer, it will have to come from consumers that are willing to do the research.  As the first line of defense, don’t be fooled by pictures of fresh foods, organic farms, or any other nature-branding.  As you might have guessed, there are no regulations on images used on packaging.  For example, even though the image on the packaging is of garden fresh vegetables being harvested by the healthiest farmer you can imagine, it probably has little or nothing to do with the product.  The best defense against greenwashing is to ignore the images, slogans, and testimonials.  Then, carefully read the nutrition label.

            Some products display ‘trustworthy seals’ that suggest some minimal level of quality.  In many cases, these ‘trustworthy seals’ are little more than marketing gimmicks.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic certification and Green Seal are among the most reliable endorsements.  In practice, these seals are most often found on processed foods that may well be made from quality products in sustainable ways but will seldom be as nutritious as the plant-based whole foods they were manufactured from.

            Making use of trustworthy seals even more perplexing is the dilemma that these certifications can refer to any one of several different aspects of food production.  You might wonder, does the claim “sustainably produced” refer to the packaging material, the farming practices, or some aspect of efficient manufacturing? Further complicating your assessment of a claim might be a few questions about the environment in which sustainability is claimed to exist.  For example, electric cars are promoted as sustainable and environmentally friendly despite the need to charge most of them from power plants burning hydrocarbons.  Although there is hope for the future, most food claims are as suspect as car claims.  In most cases, greenwashing is about creating a positive product image with an expectation that consumers won’t know enough to question the claims.

Breakfast in America

            Contrary to what it may look like in many offices, America doesn’t run on doughnuts and coffee.   The breakfast food of choice is cold cereal.  Eggs, bagels, and other pastries are close behind, but the cereal aisle is where the most important nutrition decision of the day is made by most Americans.  For those trying to make a healthy choice, the implied health claims and creative packaging can present a challenge.

            Often the cereals promoted as healthy rate pretty low.  Fruity Pebbles is a classic example of what could be called greenwashed or nutiwashed.  At a first glance, they don’t look so bad – just 9 grams of sugar in a three-quarter cup serving.  Unfortunately, when you pour the suggested serving into a normal size cereal bowl it’s going to look like a pretty small breakfast.  Most would probably up that to four servings that now contain 36 grams of sugar.  According to the American Heart Association (AHA), that’s about the maximum recommended sugar intake for an entire day (38 grams per day for males, 25 grams for women).  Of course, this AHA recommendation needs some perspective.  The AHA’s recommendation is not based on the best health outcomes.  Their recommendation is based on what they believe is the best behavior they can hope for from sugar-addicted Americans.

            For the best health outcomes, the use of refined sugars should be reduced far lower than AHA recommends.  My hope is that you will try to reduce refined sugars to near nil.  Just know that refined sugar only crowds out other nutritious foods in your diet and that reducing refined sugar is one of your best strategies for eluding the grim reaper.  To stay in the game, you will need a healthy heart.  To do that, you need the best cardiovascular health, and refined sugar isn’t going to get that for you.

            As you survey the cereal aisle, keep in mind that suggested serving size, and your actual portion size are usually going to be quite different.  The same goes for every food label you examine.  Really, who eats one serving of potato chips (10 chips)?  No one I know does that.  However, I do know a proven way to keep from eating even 10.  Don’t buy them and don’t keep them at home.

Need More Washing?

            You may have heard that words like ‘anti-aging’ are falling from favor as they are replaced by botanical buzzwords like ‘restorative juice’ or ‘restorative serum.’  One product promotes its health benefits with the slogan, “Beauty is a light in the heart.”  That’s quite a change from the notion of fighting every line and wrinkle to your dying breath.

            The new marketing message is that aging is a privilege.  It’s a message that sounds pretty good, whether you are in your 30s or 90s.  In a sense, marketing has entered an age of authenticity.

            Personally, I like the idea of accepting aging as a natural part of life, although I recognize the marketing has its ulterior motives.  While I’m not sure I would call it greenwashing, the new vocabulary is a play on my desires for a natural miracle that creates health and vitality.

            As I read the wording on health-promoting products, I’m left perplexed by the vague virtues, which often include some combination of words like ‘all-natural,’ ‘beauty-enhancing,’ ‘nourishing,’ ‘restorative,’ ‘purifying,’ or ‘organic.’  In fairness, most products that promote themselves as natural don’t include any of the more common taboo chemicals like parabens, phthalates, sodium lauryl sulfate, or triclosan.  Still, I hope for some tangible evidence that the product has virtues beyond a pleasant fragrance.  Without that evidence, I may have to let my inner light keep doing the best it can.

            Health, and skincare in particular, really is an inside job.  Skincare begins with nutrition.  While no one can stop aging, we can age more gracefully and look pretty good while doing it.  That’s why a plant-based whole food diet gets my recommendation.  As for breakfast, I suggest skipping the boxed cereals.  Whole grain cereals like oats or barley are far less expensive and far more nutritious.

            Nancy Neighbors, MD

Overnight Oats

            On a recent visit to my daughter’s home, I noticed that she and her husband keep ready to go small containers of ‘overnight’ oats in their refrigerator.  Here is their simple recipe.

            1/2 cup rolled oats,

            1-2  tbsp ground chia seeds,

            1-2  tbsp of ground flaxseed,

            1 cup water or almond milk

            Combine all ingredients in a microwaveable container and place it in the refrigerator.  In the morning, heat until you have the desired creaminess and enjoy.  Some find the texture of uncooked overnight oats preferable.  In either case, if running late, you have an easy pack breakfast.

            In the transition from boxed cereals to whole grains, most find the lack of sweetness their biggest challenge.  To help, add berries, chopped grapes, or other chopped fruit.  Frozen fruit works well in the off seasons (especially blueberries.)  For variation in texture, add an ounce or less of nuts or seeds.  At about 160 calories per ounce, one ounce of nuts or seeds is the most you will want to add unless you are trying to gain weight.

            For insurance that your overnight oats will get you all the way to lunchtime, pack an extra fruit for a snack.

By Nancy Neighbors, MD

... Dr. Neighbors provides a blend of traditional family medicine and evidence-based lifestyle medicine in Huntsville, Alabama. When indicated, lifestyle change is recommended as the first line of therapy.

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