What’s the Definition of Healthy?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is caught in a debate over what most consider an outdated definition of the term “healthy.” The current requirements for a food product to legally use the term on packaging was crafted in the 1990’s when healthcare practitioners were focused on the amount of fat in foods as the biggest threat to health. As a result, natural and fresh foods like salmon and avocados could not put “healthy” on their labels while some sugary cereals and puddings which contained no fat could. No one made the effort or took the time to change this odd set of circumstances until the makers of a new snack bar called Kind wanted to use the term on its products made of all natural foods.

Kind Foods couldn’t use the word “healthy” on its snack bars because of high fat content. Also avocados and salmon couldn’t be labeled with the term. But some processed foods such as puddings and cereals could. The FDA is rethinking its requirements for calling a food healthy.

Many of the Kind bars contain a lot of nuts which are high in fat and that put them above the allowed amount of fat in the FDA’s definition of a healthy food. But with the latest nutrition research showing that it wasn’t necessarily the amount of fat in our diets but the kind of fats, the makers of Kind thought the definition needed updating. But rather than fight the FDA on their own, they turned to the public through a petition that got the attention of the officials at the FDA.

In response, the FDA allowed Kind to begin using the phrase “tasty and healthy” again on its packaging, but only as a company slogan and not as a direct reference to the product inside. But the FDA also decided it was time to consider updating its definition of healthy and for the past six months has been soliciting comments and opinions from nutritional experts, organizations and consumers as to what the new definition should contain. The allotted time for comments ended this week and now the FDA must get down to sorting through them to make their decision.

Not surprisingly, these interested parties could not all agree on a new standard. And even within some of the organizations they couldn’t come to a mutual understanding for a definition. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics said that in the comments they gave the FDA this week that could not recommend an effective legal definition for the term “healthy.” The Center for Science in the Public Interest told the FDA in their input that they are concerned defining and allowing “healthy” to be used on packaging and in marketing may encourage people to choose processed foods over fresh fruit and vegetables and other natural foods on the grocery shelf. They do not want to see marketers misleading consumers with terms that are too nebulous.

In the end consumers need to be educated about what are the best foods for good health. They need to be savvy to avoid the tricks of marketers and the claims on packaging. Fortunately there is more and more good information as nutrition experts and researchers continue to show that fresh, natural foods and less processed packaged foods in our diets are key to keeping us “healthy.” Stay tuned to Produce Buzz as we highlight these findings on a weekly basis.


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