About Leanwashing

  1. What Is Leanwashing?
  2. Why Is Leanwashing a Problem?
  3. Leanwashing Index Scoring Criteria
  4. Leanwashing Resources

What Is Leanwashing?

Like “whitewashing” in a political context and “greenwashing” in an environmental one, “leanwashing” occurs when a company exaggerates or misleads consumers about health benefits through advertising, marketing, or packaging.

One example is the “low-calorie” labels and marketing claims for popular 100-calorie packs of cookies or chips. Implied (and sometimes directly stated) in the advertising for these smaller packages of snacks is that they are now healthier to consume — but the package contains the same low-nutritional-value food. When people are convinced to eat one of these packs instead of, say, 100 calories worth of carrots, it’s not really a healthy snack.

Packagers and marketers do this all the time, taking advantage of the Food and Drug Administration’s somewhat loose guidelines for nutritional labeling. Many food products labeled “all natural” contain additives or were heavily processed before reaching the consumer. Because the FDA does not require percentages of each ingredient to be listed on labels, foods containing small amounts of processed whole grains can be marketed as “whole grain.” A “low-calorie” label means nothing when the serving size is unrealistically small. Some fast-food chains even say that for every milkshake or soda sold, they’ll contribute to the prevention of childhood diabetes.

Leanwashing isn’t limited to foods and beverages. Any product that claims to improve our health should be evaluated carefully. For example, Reebok recently paid a $25 million settlement in a lawsuit brought by the Federal Trade Commission alleging that the company made false health claims about its EasyTone shoes. Reebok had advertised the shoes’ ability to increase muscle tone by up to 28 percent. This claim was found to be unsupported, and that was enough to drive the government to act on behalf of consumers.

Examples of leanwashing can be found all around us — including TV and print ads, store aisles, product labels, restaurant menus, vending machines, and sponsorships. The purpose of this site is to give you a forum to post, rate, and comment on these claims. We hope that along the way you’ll learn to spot leanwashing and make more educated choices about the products you buy. We want those products to benefit your health, not just the companies’ bottom line.


Why Is Leanwashing a Problem?

As the general public learns more about the negative health effects of too much fat, sodium, and sugar, food producers and marketers are trying to keep pace by introducing healthier options. Retail companies are also introducing products to help motivate people to exercise and maximize its benefits. These are good things, when done honestly.

These measures are only bad if the claims being made about them are exaggerated, misleading, or false — that’s leanwashing. And it too often leads consumers to eat foods and engage in behaviors that are marketed as healthy, instead of foods and behaviors that are actually healthy. That’s bad for consumers and, ultimately, for the very businesses doing the leanwashing — whether they mean to or not.

  • Public Health: Obesity rates in America have reached a critical point — one-third of the American adult population is obese. And although hopeful new research indicates that adult obesity rates stabilized in the last decade after spiking in the 1980s and 90s, we must work to keep it that way.1 Meanwhile, the number of obese children continues to rise, tripling over the last generation.2 The weight of boys ages 6–19, often the target of fast food and soda ads, is rising the fastest.3 Obesity is associated with serious health conditions including type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart disease, which are increasingly occurring in children.

  • The Economy: An increasingly unhealthy population affects our economy through health-care costs, employee absenteeism and lowered productivity rates. Obesity and its negative health effects cost Americans an estimated $147 billion in medical costs each year.4

  • Businesses: Smart businesses are finding out that doing right actually does increase profitability. When educated, consumers see right through leanwashing. Then it backfires, hurting the company’s reputation and, ultimately, their sales.

It’s time to look at all of the factors contributing to this problem, including marketing. Children are especially susceptible to marketing, and we’re seeing the results of leanwashing in their obesity rates. Currently, the FTC’s proposed voluntary guidelines for marketing food to kids ages 2–17 are delayed in Congress. When companies are held accountable for marketing and labeling products accurately, we can start to create a healthier population — just by knowing what we’re buying.

That’s why we created the Leanwashing Index. The more consumers recognize leanwashing, the more it will fail.

1 http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2010/01/25/prsg0129.htm
2 http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/childhood/index.html
3 http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-01-17/obesity-rates-hit-plateau-among-u-s-adults-since-2000-cdc-report-finds.html
4 http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/causes/economics.html

Leanwashing Index Scoring Criteria

The Leanwashing Index Criteria are based on the successful Greenwashing measurement criteria created by University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication professors Dr. Deborah Morrison, PhD 
and Dr. Kim Sheehan, PhD.

Those criteria were modified by our Leanwashing Index Panel of Advisers, who developed separate sets of criteria for marketing to adults and children. Many thanks to Bruce Bradley, Dr. Harold Goldstein, Dr. Gretchen Nurse, and Dr. Stephen Pont.

When you rate an ad with the Leanwashing Index, it will generate a score based on your response to the following statements. Your score will be included in the ad’s overall score, and your comments will be added to the tally. Scoring is similar to golf: high scores are undesirable (for the advertiser).

To view the criteria for ads aimed primarily at kids, click here.

  1. THE AD, PACKAGING, OR PROMOTION MISLEADS WITH WORDS.
    Do you believe it misleads the consumer about the product’s/company’s health impact through the things it says? Does it seem the words are trying to make you believe that the product is good for you when it really isn’t? Focus on the words only — what are they really saying?

  2. THE AD, PACKAGING, OR PROMOTION MISLEADS WITH VISUALS, IMAGERY, OR SPONSORSHIPS.
    Do you think it uses non-verbal cues such as graphics, photographs, sponsorships, or celebrity endorsements in a way that’s designed to make you think the product/company is healthier than it really is?

  3. THE AD, PACKAGING, OR PROMOTION MAKES A HEALTH CLAIM THAT IS VAGUE OR CAN’T BE PROVEN.
    Does it claim health benefits without sufficiently identifying for you what they are? Has the product/company provided a source for claims or for more information? Are the claims relevant to the product/company?

  4. THE AD, PACKAGING, OR PROMOTION EXAGGERATES HOW HEALTHY THE PRODUCT/COMPANY ACTUALLY IS.
    Do you believe it overstates how healthy the product/company actually is? Are the health claims believable? Do you think it’s possible for the product/company to achieve the stated results?

  5. THE AD, PACKAGING, OR PROMOTION LEAVES OUT OR MASKS IMPORTANT INFORMATION, MAKING THE HEALTH CLAIM SOUND BETTER THAN IT IS.
    Are front-of-packaging claims inconsistent with the nutritional content? Are claims used to disguise potentially unhealthy aspects of a product? Do you believe the ad, packaging, or promotion ignores or omits relevant information or consequences? Or does it seem like it’s trying to divert attention from something else the company does?

Criteria For Ads Aimed Primarily at Children

IS THE AD, PRODUCT, OR PROMOTION AIMED PRIMARLY AT CHILDREN?

If yes, the user is guided through the special criteria below:

  1. THE AD, PACKAGING, OR PROMOTION MISLEADS WITH WORDS.
    Do you believe it misleads children and/or their parents about the product’s/company’s health impact through the things it says? Does it seem the words are trying to make one believe the product is good for them when it really isn’t? Focus on the words only — what are they really saying?

  2. THE AD, PACKAGING, OR PROMOTION MISLEADS WITH VISUALS, CHARACTERS, ENDORSEMENTS, SPECIAL OFFERS, SPONSORSHIPS, OR OTHER MANIPULATIVE IMAGERY.
    Do you think it uses non-verbal cues such as graphics, photographs, animated characters, sponsorships, or celebrity endorsements in a way that’s designed to make children and/or their parents think the product/company is more healthy than it really is?

  3. THE AD, PACKAGING, OR PROMOTION MAKES A HEALTH CLAIM THAT IS VAGUE OR CAN’T BE PROVEN.
    Does it claim health benefits without sufficiently identifying what they are? Has the product/company provided a source for claims or for more information? Are the claims relevant to the product/company?

  4. THE AD, PACKAGING, OR PROMOTION EXAGGERATES HOW HEALTHY THE PRODUCT/COMPANY ACTUALLY IS.
    Do you believe it overstates how healthy the product/company actually is? Are the health claims believable? Do you think it’s possible for the product/company to achieve the stated results?

  5. THE AD, PACKAGING, OR PROMOTION LEAVES OUT OR MASKS IMPORTANT INFORMATION, MAKING THE HEALTH CLAIM SOUND BETTER THAN IT IS.
    Do the front-of-packaging claims seem inconsistent with the nutritional content? Are claims used to disguise potentially unhealthy aspects of a product? Do you believe the ad, packaging, or promotion ignores or omits relevant information or consequences? Or does it seem like it’s trying to divert attention from something else the company does?

  6. THE AD, PACKAGING, OR PROMOTION UNFAIRLY TARGETS CHILDREN.
    Does it seek to reach children where they are especially vulnerable such as in schools, online, social media, parks, athletic fields, or check-out lines?


Leanwashing Resources

Advisory Panel Affiliations:

American Academy of Pediatrics Provisional Section on Obesity
www.aap.org/obesity

American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Opportunities Tool
http://www2.aap.org/obesity/matrix_1.html

The University of Arizona Norton School of Family & Consumer Sciences
http://ag.arizona.edu/fcs/home

Texas Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Childhood Obesity
http://www.dellchildrens.net/services_and_programs/texas_center_for_the_prevention_and
_treatment_of_childhood_obesity/

The University of Texas at Austin/Texas Advertising and Public Relations
http://advertising.utexas.edu/

Southwestern Medical Center
http://www.utsouthwestern.edu/index.html

California Center for Public Health Advocacy
http://www.publichealthadvocacy.org/

Kick the Can; Giving the Boot to Sugary Drinks
http://www.kickthecan.info

Bruce Bradley Blog (a food industry insider talks about food, life, and more)
http://www.brucebradley.com/

More Leanwashing Resources:

Fooducate (free app to scan & choose healthy groceries)
http://www.fooducate.com/

FTC Information on Proposed Food Marketing Guidelines
http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2011/04/foodmarket.shtm

How to Read Nutrition Labels
http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HeartSmartShopping/
Reading-Food-Nutrition-Labels_UCM_300132_Article.jsp#.TzwUDSNgwdk

Center for Science in the Public Interest
http://www.cspinet.org/

Sugar Stacks (giving shape and form to what is hidden in the food we eat)
http://www.sugarstacks.com/

Fix Food
http://www.fixfood.org/fix-gmos/

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
http://www.rwjf.org/childhoodobesity/

Berkeley Media Studies Group (Nonprofit that conducts research to learn how the media characterize health issues)
http://www.bmsg.org/

Partnership for a Healthier America
http://www.ahealthieramerica.org/#!/home

Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity
http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/

Obesity Society
http://www.obesity.org/

Food Hero (recipes and helpful tips by Oregon State Univesity)
http://www.foodhero.org/