What Makes Food ‘Healthy’?

In 1994, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave a definition of the word ‘healthy’ for use on food labels. It defines whether a food is ‘healthy’ or not on the basis of the saturated fat content. This is not necessarily the best way to distinguish healthy from unhealthy.

The beginning of a key debate

How can it be that colorful fruit cereal is healthy whereas avocado is not? The current situation was brought into focus when Kind Snacks received a warning from the FDA that its bars would be declared ‘unhealthy.’ Why? Because it contained a high level of saturated fats. What’s wrong with this picture? The saturated fats in Kind Snacks’ bars come from nuts which are high in fat. Kind Snacks made a presentation to the FDA with Justin Mervis, Kind’s senior vice president showing the lunacy the FDA’s definition allows. He showed that almonds and salmon fall under the unhealthy category according to the FDA while frosted pastries prepared in a toaster are healthy.

Kind’s presentation had the desired effect. In May 2016, the FDA was forced to reverse its decision regarding the company’s snack bars. This came in the wake of a petition submitted by Kind Snacks. In that September, the FDA set about revising its definition of ‘healthy’ foods. Public opinions and comments are being solicited on the definition and will be accepted until April 26, 2017.

During the week of March 10, 2017, a series of public meetings were held. Relevant stakeholders such as manufacturers, nutrition experts, and members of the public got to give their input on the redefinition of the term. Mervis again made a presentation, urging the FDA to make a standardized, relevant definition to guide manufacturers and consumers. The current definition, he explained, was generalized as it measured a set-criteria (saturated fats) and a judgment made on that. The saturated fat content was not analyzed to see if it was good for the body or not.

The FDA has recognized the importance of having a definition of the word ‘healthy.’ Consumers need an honest guide to help them to eat responsibly. Their definition of ‘healthy’ may differ from the FDA’s. But an accurate, fair distinction between healthy and unhealthy can influence their purchasing. The population places its trust in government agencies to guide them. The warnings the FDA offer are no exception. Hence it is critical that the definition is right. If the status quo persists, the FDA will not be fulfilling its mandate of helping consumers eat healthy foods and adhere to good eating habits.

The initial definition was aimed at getting consumers to eat more vitamins, minerals, and fiber. The idea was also to reduce the intake of saturated fats due to all the health complications it can introduce. The addition of sugar to products was a key focus as well.

How do consumers see the situation?

An FDA survey conducted in 2014 found that up to 77% of consumers rely on the food label on products to decide if they would buy it. 79% tend to look at the label once, usually when they’re buying the product for the first time. However, most consumers are guilty of skimming and scanning. If they see the label ‘healthy’ up to 90% tend to assume that it’s a sound purchase.

If a product packaging contains a misleading and unlikely statement such as ‘rich in vitamins and minerals,’ it can prompt consumers to buy it. Claims such as these can sway customers and how they make their purchases.

Consumers are making more informed decisions about the foods they buy. That’s why they pay attention to labels. Those on a specific diet will look out for the important elements they need such as protein. That’s why manufacturers and the FDA agree that as much information as possible should be provided for the discerning consumer.

Manufacturers and nutritionists weigh in

Kind Snacks’ Justin Mervis was again at the forefront of challenging the current FDA definition. He made a presentation of what he and his team had determined a nutrition program should contain and what should appear in the FDA’s definition. He argued that foods labeled ‘healthy’ should not have a threshold of nutrients. This implies that foods need not contain part of the daily recommended amount of Vitamin C or calcium. In the opinion of Kind Snacks, the focus should be on the amount of added fats and sugars, sodium levels, sweeteners, and artificial colorants.

Conagra also weighed in. As the manufacturer of Healthy Choice, the organization believes that the FDA’s recommendation of their product as ‘healthy’ is critical for its sales. Kristin Reimers, Conagra’s Director of Nutrition, said that advancements in nutrition technology and the evolving perceptions of consumers meant that the definition of ‘healthy’ might need to change. Her argument included the example of peanut butter being deemed healthy but French fries not getting the status, despite the similar fat content.

Senior Nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Lindsay Moyer, expressed concerns about labeling on products. The health claims made on the labels of several unhealthy foods made them attractive to customers. She felt that misleading labeling was pushing consumers toward unhealthy choices. The labels were causing unhealthy products to compete with and often beat fruits and vegetables for nutritional value in the minds of consumers. This type of marketing was negatively affecting consumer decisions she said.

Pepin Tuma is from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. He specializes in government and regulatory affairs. He stated that he and his team had addressed the current FDA definition. They found it to be outdated and in need of review. It was their opinion that the definition made no room for nutrition science trends.

Tuma admitted that the greatest difficulty all the parties would experience was coming up with a common definition of the word ‘healthy.’ Reaching some form of consensus of what healthy means would be a challenge. Coming up with a legal definition for the word which can be regulated and monitored is not as easy as it may sound.

As it stands right now, all parties agree on the need for a change. The nature of the change, however, remains the subject of much debate.

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