Almost every day, consumers shopping for the healthiest foods must deal with a dizzying array of constantly changing nutritional information. The latest such shift happened on September 30 when an international group of researchers found that eating high quantities of red meat is not associated with long-term cancer or heart disease risks. The broader implication that eating a high-fat diet won’t cut life expectancy short will prove particularly difficult for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to swallow.
What Is "Healthy?"
In recent years, the FDA has been gung-ho about holding companies to a narrow, increasingly precarious definition of “healthy” on their labels. Until the agency changes course, millions of consumers will be held hostage to the nutritional advice of yesteryear.
Asking one’s mother, doctor, and nutritional science professor what is meant by the word “healthy” will likely elicit three very different responses. But the FDA’s definition is the one that matters legally, and “falsely” labeling a product as healthy can and will incur the agency’s wrath. KIND, LLC (the maker of KIND bars) found this out the hard way in March 2015 when the FDA told the company it couldn’t use the word “healthy” on four labels and its website due to the high fat content of its products. In response, the company reasonably argued that their product should be judged holistically rather than by one “bad” nutrient.
Even food producers that do cleanse their items of FDA-stigmatized nutrients aren’t safe from the agency.
After all, KIND bars have a plethora of minerals (i.e. calcium, potassium, iron) that are healthy for most consumers. After KIND pointed this out—and following the embarrassing press that followed the letter—the FDA partially reversed course in 2016. But even then, the agency insisted that “healthy” only refers to the company’s “corporate philosophy” as opposed to being an actual, well, health claim. This nitpicking demonstrates the FDA’s continued commitment to demonizing fat and ignoring most of the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals in any given food product.
And even food producers that do cleanse their items of FDA-stigmatized nutrients aren’t safe from the agency. In 2015, the FDA sent a warning letter to Wonder Natural Foods Corp. for claiming their product Better’n Peanut Butter Original is “healthy” and “low calorie.” The FDA claimed the product cannot be low calorie since it “does not meet the requirements to bear the claim because it provides more than 40 calories per RACC [Reference Amount Customarily Consumed] and per 50g.”
Except, by all indications, Wonder Natural Foods Corp. is claiming low-calorie status relative to regular peanut butter. Consumers comparing the nutrition labels of regular peanut butter and this imitation product can easily see that the latter has about half the calories of the former (while maintaining low sugar content). And that’s what matters since consumers tend to already have well-formed tastes around familiar foods.
Incremental Changes Threatened by Outdated Standards
The key is not to make peanut butter enthusiasts switch over to a completely different food (i.e. broccoli) that they probably won’t wind up liking anyway. It’s far easier for consumers to improve their diet by eating versions of the foods they love with fewer of the ingredients (i.e. sugar, calories) that nutritionists don’t love.
Americans, by and large, are making these incremental changes, but far more needs to be done to reduce obesity, heart disease, and various cancers. The FDA should allow imitation products to provide consumers with lower-calorie, lower-sugar alternatives to the staples they enjoy.The FDA enforcing erratic, outdated “healthy” guidelines only adds to consumers’ perceptions that nutrition is an arbitrary, meaningless construct. The agency has signaled that it intends to rewrite its definition of “healthy,” but progress thus far has been slow and uneven.
Bureaucrats at the FDA would be wise to take a more holistic approach to nutrition, allowing companies that offer high-fat but high-nutrient foods a better chance to explain and market their products. Meanwhile, the FDA should allow imitation products to provide consumers with lower-calorie, lower-sugar alternatives to the staples they enjoy. Americans can continue to get healthier, but only with a steadier, calmer approach by bureaucrats.