Healthwashing: 7 tactics Big Food, Big Soda use to fool you


Healthwashing is a dirty business and the weapon that food and soft-drink companies use to hide unpleasant, soiled facts about their products. It is a close cousin of whitewashing that is loosely defined as ‘a coordinated attempt to hide unpleasant facts, especially in a political context’. 

In 2015,  New York Times writer Anahad O’Connor showed that Coke spent billions over decades funding scientists and front organisations to shift the blame from sugar to fat for the global obesity epidemic. In the US, two pastors have filed a lawsuit against Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association. Coca-Cola vigorously disputes all claims. It has deep pockets to protect its profits.

Here, a professor of public health gives a guide to seven healthwashing tactics that companies use to market their products. – Marika Sboros

By Rob Moodie, University of Melbourne

The Conversation – Across Africa, there are examples of governments trying to introduce policies that improve health and protect the environment only to find their efforts undermined by unhealthy corporations and their industry associations.

A case in point is South Africa’s efforts to introduce a tax on sugary drinks to reduce the growing burden of obesity. In the process, they are facing a barrage of resistance. This is one small example of unhealthy industries undermining the public’s health and the global environment.

If you are working to improve public health and the environment in Africa, you need to know what your opponents are up to.

Below is a quick guide to their tactics, which I have assembled as a summary from three sources: Naomi Oreskes and Eric M Conway, Merchants of Doubt, William Wiist’s The Corporate Playbook, Health, and Democracy: The Snack Food and Beverage Industry’s Tactics in Context, and Nicholas Freudenberg’s Lethal but Legal.

1. Attack legitimate science

  • Accuse science of deception, calling it “junk science” or “bad science,” claiming science is manipulated to fulfil a political agenda.
  • Attack the scientific institutions and government agencies perceived to be acting against corporate interests.
  • Insist that the science is uncertain by claiming scientists don’t know what’s causing it and that more research is needed.
  • Withhold any data unfavourable to the corporate product.
  • Use information in a misleading way; cherry-picking by using facts that are true but irrelevant.
  • Insist that there are many causes to a health or environmental problem, and that addressing just one of them will have minimal impact.
  • Exaggerate the uncertainty inherent in any scientific endeavour to undermine the status of established scientific knowledge.
  • Use corporate-funded studies.
  • Fund researchers sympathetic to corporate causes or products.

2. Attack and intimidate scientists

  • Create doubt by attacking the authenticity and integrity of the author.
  • Attack the credibility of the messenger and allege ulterior motives.
  • Have “attack dogs” intimidate opponents.
  • Smear the enemy – for example, by calling environmentalists “watermelons” (green on the outside and red on the inside), use hatred and fear of communism to transfer animosity to the environmental movement.
  • Threaten to sue — or actually sue — scientists and advocates but avoid or delay
    hearings of the facts.
  • Make accusations using the rhetoric of political suppression.
  • Infiltrate scientific groups and monitor prominent scientists.
  • Create enough doubt to forestall litigation and regulation.
  • Constantly repeat the doubt, using surrogates or “message force multipliers”.
  • Use pejorative terms repeatedly such as “excessive” regulation, “over” regulation, “unnecessary” regulation, “nanny state,” and “health Nazis” to promote fear and disdain.
  • Always demand more proof.
  • Alternatively, aim for self-regulation instead of regulation; introduce corporate voluntary codes to forestall government regulation.

3. Create arms-length front organisations

  • Create front groups.
  • Run projects through front groups (“information laundering”) – especially law firms, because they can avoid scrutiny due to attorney – client privilege.
  • Create research institutes that can create their own scientific studies.
  • Sponsor conferences and workshops.
  • Create “independent” newsletters, magazines, and journals (not subject to peer review).
  • Publish findings selectively.
  • Manipulate research funding, design, and authorship.
  • Distribute materials— targeted pamphlets and booklets, social media.
  • Use public opinion polling.

Click here to read: Dr Jason Fung on doctors who betray patients’ trust

4. Manufacture false debate and insist on balance

  • Create the impression of a controversy.
  • Maintain the controversy, keep the debate alive.
  • Create false dichotomies.
  • Insist that responsible journalists cover both sides of the argument equally.
  • Demand balance, relying on the Fairness Doctrine.
  • Divert attention from harmful products.
  • Focus on corporate social responsibility.
  • Set up corporate social responsibility foundations; find small-scale, apparently well-meaning community activities.
  • Focus on other issues as the problem, like physical activity instead of diet, for example.

5. Frame issues in highly creative ways

  • Insist that the problem is very complex, thus implying it can’t have a simple solution, if any.
  • Insist that it is premature to suggest remedies.
  • Constantly repeat that technological advances will obviate the need for regulations and that the problem can be solved only through the marketplace.
  • Insist on personal or parental responsibility and  that government should have no role in influencing individual health behaviour.
  • Use colourful imagery such as “a billion dollar solution to a million dollar problem” and words like “speculative,” “oversimplified,” “premature,” and “unbalanced”.
  • Use the creation of fear as a tool for change of policy.
  • Diminish the severity of the problem while giving some ground.
  • Admit that it is a serious problem but not a life-threatening one.
  • Admit that there may be a problem but it is less severe than everyone says.
  • Argue that the problem is less severe than other problems — those should be
    the priority.
  • Argue that the cost to fix the problem is too high.
  • Claim that the benefits of the problem haven’t been considered.
  • Argue that other options haven’t been considered.
  • Understand and use the power of language – the other side’s language is filled with uncertainties, so make sure yours is certain.

6. Fund industry disinformation campaigns

  • Run industry disinformation campaigns using new and creative forms.
  • Pay and co-opt celebrities and sympathetic expert witnesses.
  • Sponsor conferences to challenge scientific consensus.
  • Align with other issues – employment discrimination, antitax groups.

7. Influence the political agenda

  • Donate to political parties across the political spectrum.
  • Get representatives from unhealthy industries around the policy table, for guideline development or standard setting.
  • Invest heavily in paid lobbyists.
  • Get “friends” in important and influential government roles — for example, by targeted hiring of politicians, their advisers, or senior administration officials once they leave office.
  • Aim to reduce government budgets for regulatory or scientific, or policy activities against corporate interests.




  1. I find the supposition of this article incredibly lame.

    These techniques are used by all dedicated advocates on any given issue regardless of which side of the issue the advocate is on. It is simply ludicrous to claim that only Big Food and/or Big Soda uses typical PR schemes/tactics to promote their position.

    Simply stated, all of the following advocacy groups commonly employ the strategies and techniques this article lists, including: Big Govt, Big Healthcare, Big Business, Big Labor, Big Religion, Big Green, Big NGO, Big Charity, Big Media, Big Hollywood, Big Pharma, Big Agriculture and etc. And there are advocates for low carb, keto, vegan and other dietary approaches that do much of the same.

    And the worst of modernity – current politicians of every stripe – are prolific offenders of misleading attack advocacy and should never be believed.

    Personally, I now pursue a dietary approach that avoids most processed food and anything that resembles a soda. For me, the HFLC and non-processed daily nutrition plan works pretty darn well, but without producing the cognitive dissonance path that this article’s author seems to be on.

    It’s a shame that Marika feels a need to promote a viewpoint that is poignantly attack advocacy on those she feels should not be doing attack advocacy – ‘Hi pot, meet kettle.’

  2. Great article, Marika!

    “The failure of the United States to act on global warming and the long delays between when the science was settled and when we acted on tobacco, acid rain, and the ozone hole are prima facie empirical evidence that doubt-mongering worked.”
    Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in ‘Merchants of Doubt’.

    “Within a democracy, delayed action sometimes occurs to ensure consideration of diverse viewpoints, but often delay is due to the disproportion influence of corporations seeking priority for their sole interests. What serves the corporation is not necessarily in the best interest of society, nor is serving the profit motive necessarily the best way to achieve societal goals.”
    William H. Wiist in ‘The corporate play book, health, and democracy: The snack food and beverage industry’s tactics in context’

    Corporate Tactic:
    “Insist that the problem is very complex, thus implying it can’t have a simple solution, if any.”
    Rob Moodie

    Yes, that’s the issue we’re facing with the global obesity and diabetes epidemic. The SUGAR pushers keep saying the issue is complex. It’s not. We need to get off sugar. Period.

    While it IS simple. That doesn’t make it easy. Sugar is highly addictive and anyone who’s dealt with addicts knows how sadly complete their denial and avoidance of a cure can sometimes be.

    But we’re making headway. More and more people join the Real Food movement every day. People are shunning sugar and flour in record numbers. The global food environment is shifting and changing in ways the SUGAR pushers can’t deny or destroy despite their most desperate efforts.

    It may not look like it now, but we ARE winning. It just takes a long time to turn a ship this big.

    SUGARbriety as a socially achievable goal may seem far off. But so did votes for women, home rule for India, and an end to apartheid not so long ago. Time is on our side.

  3. This is of course showing the same corporate psychopathology of government, pharmaceutical corporations, tied university departments and “health” institutions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.