Thursday, May 12, 2016

Your Favorite Food Might Not Be Calling Itself 'Healthy' In The Future

Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter to the fruit-and-nut snack bar company Kind, on the grounds that using the word "healthy" on its labels was misleading. 

Undeterred, Kind fought back. The company issued a citizen petition signed by 12 high-profile nutritionists in December, asking the FDA to update its requirements for packaging a food as "healthy." Kind claimed the standards for using the term are based on outdated nutrition science concerning saturated fat, in which nuts are high. 

After a back-and-forth battle between the snack company and government agency, the FDA has not backed down on the saturated fat issue. It will, however, allow the company to use the phrase “healthy and tasty” on its packaging, but only in text related to Kind's "corporate philosophy." The FDA specifically noted that the word "healthy" should not appear on the same panel as its nutrition content claims or information. 

The news does come in conjunction with a larger announcement that the FDA will reevaluate its nutrition labeling regulations more generally, including use of the term "healthy."

The FDA plans to crowdsource opinions from nutrition experts, as well as from the public, about what the new definition of healthy foods should be. The current definition applies the term "healthy" to foods that meet the dietary recommendations for total fat, saturated fat, sodium, cholesterol and beneficial nutrients such as calcium.

Nutrition experts largely agree that the agency's labeling guidelines, which were developed in 1993 and haven't changed much since, are long overdue for an update to keep them in step with current nutrition science. The guideline for saturated fat in particular, critics including Kind say, is leftover from the 90s, when low-fat diets were in favor (we now know plant-based fats are part of a healthy diet). 

The most recent federal dietary guidelines recommend that Americans consume healthy fats from foods like fish, nuts, seeds, olive oil and avocados. This isn't to say that Kind bars deserve the healthy label, but if they don't deserve it, it shouldn't be because they contain high-fat nuts such as almonds.

Still, the FDA will face a steep challenge in keeping corporate food interests from manipulating the yet-to-be-defined terms they want to use to market their products. 

The larger implications of a labeling overhaul

Americans are more interested in buying health foods, whatever that means, now than ever. And they've gotten the message on the latest research: Low-fat food sales are slipping and Americans are buying more gluten-free and all-natural products, according to The Wall Street Journal. 

Of course, there's not much indication that the latest healthful-seeming labels are any better than those that have fallen out of fashion.

"The terms 'healthy' and 'natural' help to sell food products. They are about marketing, not health," wrote Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, Thursday on her blog Food Politics. 

Nestle called the FDA's task unenviable. "I am opposed in principle to health claims on foods," she told The Huffington Post.

But if the task of defining "healthy" foods were forced upon her, however, "I'd say as minimally processed as possible, with added salt and sugar in minimal amounts," she said, noting that the salt and sugar cut points would have to be defined and very low.

James DiNicolantonio, a cardiovascular research scientist at Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute, seemed to agree. Most healthy foods don't have a food label, DiNicolantonio explained, pointing out that true healthful foods like fruits, vegetable, fish and lean meats are found in nature rather than factories and come without a package full of claims.

"Taking this into account, it then becomes somewhat apparent that labeling foods as being healthy is defeating the purpose," he said. 

According to DiNicolantonio, labeling distracts from the fact that we're probably better off eating foods that don't require labels in the first place.

"That being said," he added, "I think calling out hidden added sugars is an undoubted step in the right direction, with the caveat that there is a lot of work that needs to be done from there."

The sad reality is that we probably need 'healthy' food labels

Given expert opinions, wouldn't it be simpler to make the term "healthy" off-limits to to packaged food products?

Yes, but it's probably unrealistic to expect Americans to eschew processed foods altogether, all the time. 

If you're stuck in a situation where processed foods are the only thing available to you (read: the airport), it can be helpful to know which foods are on the healthier end of the spectrum, Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told HuffPost in December. (Willett authored a letter of support for food policy changes last year, but doesn't have any affiliation with Kind.)

As for the company at the center of the action, Kind CEO Daniel Lubetzky acknowledged the difficultly the FDA faces in creating a blanket definition for healthy foods. 

"Nutritionists and the scientific community come up with something that seems very sound, and then the industry gets in the middle and you end up with special interests influencing public policy," Lubetzky said. "The media and groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest and consumers and nutritions need to hold the industry accountable for any abuses and to call them out."

It could take years, including rounds proposals and hearings, before the FDA can implement an update to its definition of "healthy." But for now, the announcement is a step in the right direction, particularly if the new requirements help reign in the nation's added sugar and sodium habits. 

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