Posted on 10 October 2022
Most people don’t need any help understanding which whole foods are healthy. We know that generally, vegetables, fruits, nuts and fish are good for us, while red meat should be consumed less frequently. Processed foods are another matter – without looking at the ingredients, you won’t necessarily know how much sugar is in your cereal or how much extra fat has been added to your ready-made meal. Even after checking the packet, most people are not well equipped to determine whether something is ‘healthy’ or not.
Healthiness is not just about calorie content, but the specific types of sugar and fat found within our food. These nuances have not always been taken into consideration by regulators, and US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now looking to improve its definition. This will refine the criteria to which a company will need to adhere if they want to describe their product is healthy. This might not be happening were it not for a legal dispute over a snack bar that began 7 years ago.
Meet KIND bars. Back in 2015, KIND was a small private company making fruit and nut bars, which it advertised as healthy. In April of that year, KIND received a warning letter from the FDA: KIND was not allowed to call its bars healthy, because they contained too much saturated fat. The FDA’s definition of ‘healthy’ stipulated a maximum total fat, saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol content, a minimum vitamin/mineral content, while saying nothing at all about sugar. In fact under the FDA’s rules, foods like salmon, avocados and many nuts could not be labelled as healthy due to their fat content.
KIND filed an FDA citizens petition arguing that nuts should be considered healthy, and the FDA could hardly argue with this. In 2016, they allowed KIND to use the term ‘healthy’ and also pledged to revisit their definition of the word.
7 years on, the FDA have released their proposed rules about claiming a food product is healthy. The full publication can be found here. In brief, the FDA says that to be labelled “healthy”, a product must contain a meaningful amount of food (yes, you did read that correctly), and must contain under less than a specified amount of saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. By requiring a product to contain some real food, the new rules disqualify so-called food-like objects (a collection of edible chemicals) from being labelled healthy. They also disqualify foods with high sugar content.
The optimistic view:
This is a significant improvement over previous rules, and will exclude many products from labelling themselves as healthy, including nearly all cereals marketed to children. There clearly need to be rules in place to stop food manufacturers erroneously labelling their products as healthy, and the more accurate these rules are, the more equipped buyers will be to choose healthier products. The FDA is looking to develop an easily recognisable label that will indicate that a product meets their definition of healthy. While these rules will only apply to the United States, they are likely to have a knock-on effect on other regulators and on the global food industry.
The cynical view:
No one needs to see a ‘healthy’ label on an apple or a cabbage to know that it’s good for them. Claims about health on food packaging are there to sell processed food products, not to benefit the consumer. While such a label may give the buyer some assurances that the product meets a certain standard of healthiness, it probably won’t dissuade people from buying highly processed ‘junk food’ just because the label isn’t there. One practice that we know is effective for reducing the consumption of junk food is the addition of warning labels, something that food companies absolutely do not want, and which the FDA doesn’t require.
FDA’s plan to define ‘healthy’ for food packaging: Better than the existing labeling anarchy, but do we really need it?: https://www.statnews.com/2022/10/07/fda-plan-define-healthy-label-food-packaging/
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