As you stroll through your local grocery store, you may see many labels advertising food as “all-natural” or “sustainably produced.” You may also see packaging that’s green, or shows hearty farmers working in the fields. They look healthy, so the food must be, too — right?
Not necessarily! Stop, look and listen. These labels and packaging don’t necessary mean that the food is really natural, sustainably produced or even healthy for you.
The reason is greenwashing. Greenwashing is using certain elements in advertising or information about food to give the impression of environmentally friendly and healthy food. In fact, the food may be neither. Colors, phrases and logos can all be used to greenwash. If you read the ingredients given in the fine print, you may find the greenwashed food is virtually identical to its non-greenwashed cousins a few aisles over.
A few years ago, for example, Frito-Lay came out with Natural Lay’s Potato Chips. It has an environmentally friendly-looking bag, earthy brown tones and uses expeller‑pressed sunflower oil and sea salt. The chips are thicker and heartier-looking. But there’s no necessary connection with health. The labels show the same grams of fat and same number of calories as regular Lay’s potato chips. Oil is oil, and salt is salt. Neither is as healthy as lettuce.
Practices like this exist in companies all over. Why does greenwashing exist? Unfortunately, “green” is big business. As people become increasingly interested in health and environmentally sustainable practices, food companies are increasing their marketing to people with those interests.
How can you defend against greenwashing? The answer is being a more aware consumer. Here are four tips.
- Look at Labels, Not Packaging
Some of the most blatant examples of greenwashing use packaging to convey that a food is green. The packaging may be, well, green! Or, as in the potato chip example, it may be earthy. It may have pictures of the planet, or wheat fields, or may show apple-cheeked farmers in the fields. It will look different than regular food packages, which are often in bright, primary colors.
Remember that packaging like this doesn’t necessarily mean the ingredients are all natural. Food marketers — even the ones employed by health food companies, sadly — have become very adept at getting consumers to make connections between the appearance and the reality. It’s just not necessarily there.
The solution is to read the labels. All food marketed in the U.S. has to contain all the ingredients on its label. Make the label your friend. It will tell you whether your vegetable stock for soup is made of hydrogenated powder or actual vegetables.
- Be Cautious About Environmentally Friendly Slogans
Another greenwashing ploy, used in both packaging and advertising, is to use slogans that imply environmentally friendly products. They may say “good for the earth” or “for your good health.” These are no different than your run-of-the-mill “Mmm … mmm good” slogan, or any other ad campaign. They’re designed to get sales from green-conscious consumers.
This form of greenwashing can be done by companies with no penalty. They aren’t, after all, saying their products are green, sustainable or healthy. They’re just strongly implying it.
The solution is to become more conscious of how misleading this kind of slogan can be. Remember: a slogan is not proof.
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- Look for Proof of Green Practices
So, what is proof? There are legitimate certifications for environmentally friendly and healthy food.
One primary agent is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). A food certified organic by the USDA has to follow certain rules and regulations. The food must be grown using certain products only, and not others. It will be labeled USDA Organic.
Another trustworthy label is the Green Seal. Scientific American calls it “the granddaddy” of all third-party eco-certifications. Green Seal is a nonprofit organization that develops certification standards across the environmental spectrum. Companies receiving the seal must use environmentally friendly processes in manufacturing, for example.
Consumers should be very wary of labels they cannot research. While USDA Organic and Green Seal are legitimate and verifiable, not all labels are. A few years ago, a company named Tested Green was targeted by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for false claims. It turned out companies could essentially buy the Tested Green label for $200 to $500. No real certification process was involved.
The solution is to research any certifications you see.
- Be Aware of the Variety of Green Practices
When a product is labeled or certified as green, that can refer to a very wide spectrum of practices. Does it mean healthy, unprocessed food? Does it mean sustainable farming practices? Sustainable practices in manufacturing? Does it mean commitments to minimal packaging, or eliminating cruelty to animals? The number of questions indicates the wide variety of green practices.
A company, then, can say it’s green in one area, but may not be in another. A healthy food grower, for example, may use packaging washed with harmful chemicals.
The solution here is to become acquainted with labels, certifiers and companies in the natural food sector. Some practice green methods throughout the process. Others concentrate only on manufacturing, or only on organic farming. If you’re interested in eating green, find the products and companies that fit your needs.
Greenwashing is widespread already, and likely to become more so. These four tips will help you not only catch greenwashing, but proceed to eat healthily going forward.