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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is caught in a debate over what most consider an outdated definition of the term “healthy.”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.

What’s the Definition of Healthy?

The New York Times is Making You Fat!

reading newspaper
Are newspapers subtly suggesting to us what to eat? The research says…well..maybe!

The old expression, “You are what you eat” can be given a new twist after the conclusions of a new study were released this month. We can now say, “You are what you read” or at the very least, “You eat what you read.”

According to a study published in BMC Public Health by a research team from Cornell University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the obesity rate for the United States and Britain over the last 50 years has directly correlated to what types of food were most often mentioned in the New York Times and the London Times. The studies authors, Brian Wansink and Brennan Davis, concluded that, “United States obesity prevalence is positively associated with New York Times mentions of sweet snacks… and negatively associated with mentions of fruits… and vegetables. Similar results are found for the United Kingdom and The London Times.”

The researchers looked at articles from the past 50 years of the New York Times and for the past 17 years in London Times and set values based upon mentions of unhealthy salty and sweet snacks on one side and mentions of fruit and vegetables on the healthy side. That was then correlated to the obesity rates (Body Mass Index or BMI) of each nation. They concluded that the predominance of one or the other, unhealthy versus healthy food references, in the papers could generally predict the rise or fall of obesity rates three years ahead of time.

The study stated that obesity rates in U.S. has risen from 13.4% to 33.8% since 1960 while the U.K. obesity rate has risen from 15% to 25.4% since 1993. The researchers analysis showed that articles mentioning vegetables declined by 46 %, and articles mentioning fruits, salty snacks, and sweet snacks increased (92 %, 417 %, and 310 %) over the last 50 years in the New York Times.

No doubt many of you are already scratching your head at the potential flaws in this correlation. Even the authors Wansink and Davis admit that their study has “limitations worth discussing.” They rightly acknowledge that their research is not exhaustive and does not show any real evidence that the Times newspapers are the cause of the obesity. They certainly did not have time nor desire to study the context of the mentions of those unhealthy or healthy food words. In some cases the articles might not even be talking about food. One example they give in the caveats is that the term popcorn might have been used in an article describing Styrofoam packing materials for shipping.

So we take this study with a few grains of salt (Oh No! Has that phrase sent you to the kitchen looking for potato chips?). But at Produce Buzz, we think there could be something to this “power of suggestion.” Who among hasn’t experienced the sudden craving for ice cream or chocolate or a buttery box of popcorn after an ever so slight suggestion from a faint familiar smell or a ever so subtle mention of one of our favorite snacks? Did we succumb to the urge or did we bury it in our subconscious only to have it revive soon after? Similarly, suggestions of our favorite fruits and vegetables can send us in the opposite direction. So how we eat can depend greatly on what our minds are ingesting. That’s a big part of our mission at Produce Buzz—to keep the good food in the front of our readers’ minds as much as possible so we can help turn the tide on obesity.

Fifty years of fat: news coverage of trends that predate obesity prevalence

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The New York Times is Making You Fat!