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Published on February 16th, 2013 | by Mary Gerush

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Don’t Be Leanwashed: Five Food-Words That Should Be Banned

Misleading Food Labels

Are Froot Loops healthy because they’re “made with whole grains”? Is a 100-calorie bag of cookies good for you?

We’re bombarded with food labels and commercials designed to mislead. Food producers and marketers push boundaries to make their foods look nutritious through shady labeling and advertising practices — now known as “leanwashing.” They’ve recognized consumers’ increased attention to the fat, sugar, and sodium content in the foods we buy. And they frequently take advantage of holes in the Food and Drug Administration’s labeling guidelines to lead us to believe their products are better for us than they really are.

The Leanwashing Index

Leanwashing Index Rating ScaleNeed help navigating the often confusing claims made on food labels and in advertising? Check out the Leanwashing Index, a public service educational tool created by EnviroMedia Social Marketing. Readers submit ads and rate them based on a set of criteria established by the Leanwashing Index Panel of Advisors. Scores range from one — indicating the ad’s claims are believable — to five — labeling its claims as bogus.

The Leanwashing Index also recently published its top five leanwashing terms that should be “banished to the land of advertising malarkey.” Here they are, straight from the Leanwashing Index web site:

  1. Natural: The word that has no nutritional or legal definition yet appears on millions of packages, including sugar-laden sodas. Ignore it.
  2. Made With: Food products can advertise they are “made with” liquid from the fountain of youth, even if fountain of youth juice makes up less than one percent of the final product. Ignore “made with” unless you are willing to read the entire ingredients label to make sure it’s not also “made with” tons of sugar and unpronounceable chemicals.
  3. Whole Grains: Unless “whole grains” is preceded by 100 percent, watch out. Tiny traces of grains may have prompted the claim, and it’s especially tricky when paired with the other banished phrase, “made with.”
  4. Light: Consumers must decide if 24 grams of sugar in a yogurt container is really “light.” Don’t let advertisers hypnotize you with this word. Read the nutrition information, read the nutrition information, read the nutrition information.
  5. 100 Calorie: Cookies, chips and other processed snacks are marketed in 100-calorie packages, leading consumers to believe what’s inside is a healthy choice. Many of these should be labeled “empty calorie” packages. “We’re all for smaller portion sizes, but 100-calorie packs of crap are not healthy food,” said Leanwashing Index co-founder Valerie Davis, CEO of EnviroMedia Social Marketing.

Watch for these Leanwashing terms when you shop, and educate your children — they are often the intended targets. Let’s quit being leanwashed, and help keep advertising honest.

Image Credit: www.leanwashingindex.com and ilovebutter via flickr/CC



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About the Author

Hi all! I'm Mary Gerush - a recovering corporate worker bee turned good-farm-real-food advocate and writer who wants to help people understand what they're eating. I tend a tiny urban farm in Dallas, TX, and hope to scale up one day soon. Omnivore through-and-through, there's not much I love to eat more than a butter-basted grass fed steak fresh from a searing hot cast iron skillet. Follow me on , , and !



  • Ann

    Good stuff. Number 6 banished term should be “Reduced Fat”.

    • http://glueandglitter.com/main Becky Striepe

      Seconded, Ann!!

  • http://www.organicallymade.com Jodi

    Great post, thanks for addressing this subject! I am in for thirds on the “reduced fat”.

  • scott cooney

    Thanks for a great explanation. I’ve also seen “whole grains” ascribed to products made of nothing but sugar, fillers, and gmo corn. There oughta be a law, i tells ya.

  • Mary Gerush

    It’s amazing we have to navigate through all this malarkey!

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