Why The FDA Is Re-Evaluating The Nutty Definition Of 'Healthy' Food

May 10, 2016
Originally published on May 23, 2016 9:54 pm

The Food and Drug Administration is re-evaluating its definition of what counts as a "healthy" food.

The change comes as healthful fats — including fats found in nuts — are increasingly recognized as part of a good diet.

Currently, if a food company wants to put a "healthy" claim on its label, regulations stipulate that it must be very low in fat. The specific rules are complex, but, for instance, a snack food can contain no more than 3 grams of fat for a regular-size serving.

This means that many snacks that include nuts don't qualify as healthy.

The FDA says that in light of evolving nutrition research, it is now planning to solicit public and expert comment to come up with a new definition that will help consumers make informed choices.

The move comes after the maker of Kind brand bars — which contain almonds and other nuts — pushed back against an FDA complaint about its use of the phrase "healthy and tasty." After making its complaint, the FDA now says that after reviewing the situation, it is comfortable with the company using the phrase.

"We are pleased that the FDA is looking into" revising its definition, says Daniel Lubetzky, the CEO of Kind bars. The company helped launch a citizens' petition requesting that the FDA take action.

The FDA definition of healthy is a holdover from the era when dietary fat was vilified.

"Low in fat used to mean healthy," says Thomas Sherman, an associate professor at Georgetown University who teaches medical students about nutrition. "And high in fat had a pejorative context to it."

As we've reported, millions of Americans clung to the advice that low fat was best. During the 1990s, an era of fat-free mania, Americans were making a habit of munching on sugar-rich, refined-grain products such as Snackwells.

But Sherman says there's been an evolution in understanding — and awareness. We now know that consuming too much sugar can have negative health consequences. And there's a growing awareness that foods "higher" in fat can be healthful.

As we've reported, many new studies affirm the healthfulness of eating more plant-based fats, such as avocados and nuts.

"Nuts have healthy fats ... that we know are good for cardiovascular health and mental health and are good sources of protein," says Sherman. He points out that nuts are calorie-dense, so people should limit portion sizes. But he says that overall, "nuts are a wonderful component of our diet."

And the dietary guidelines, which were updated earlier this year, recommend eating foods rich in healthful fats.

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The Food and Drug Administration is re-evaluating its definition of what counts as healthy food. The current definition which originated decades ago still allows foods like fat-free muffins and sugar-laden cereals to carry the label healthy because they are low in fat.

But there's been an evolution in thinking about what makes a good diet, and as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports the FDA is playing catch-up.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: If a food company wants to put a healthy claim on its label, the existing regulations stipulate that it can contain only very low levels of total fat per serving. This means that many foods including, for instance, nuts don't qualify. This definition became a problem for Daniel Lubetzky, the CEO of Kind bars. His company markets popular nut bars which are pretty high in fat. They've been using the phrase healthy and tasty on their wrappers until the Food and Drug Administration complained.

DANIEL LUBETZKY: A year ago, we received a letter from the FDA advising us that we could not use the term healthy in the back of our wrappers.

AUBREY: Lubetzky says he was surprised.

LUBETZKY: My initial thought was, what? That didn't really make sense to us.

AUBREY: The FDA regulations are a holdover from an era where fat was vilified. Throughout the '90s and early 2000s, millions of Americans were given the advice that low-fat or fat-free was best. And we're only now emerging from that thinking.

Tom Sherman of Georgetown University Medical School says as the science has evolved, so, too, should our food labeling.

THOMAS SHERMAN: Previously, we used the terms low in fat to mean healthy, and high in fat had a pejorative context to it.

AUBREY: But there's been a major shift. As even Pop-Tart-lovers now have likely heard, the evidence shows that too much sugar and highly processed grains can be bad for us, whereas foods such as fatty fish, avocados and nuts are helpful. In other words, some fat is good, and that's the message people should be getting.

SHERMAN: So low in sugar, higher in fat, especially for foods like nuts which are just wonderful components of our diet.

AUBREY: Now lots of Americans have gotten the message. Consumption of nuts is way up over the last few years. And surveys show our fat phobia is fading. So is anyone waiting around for the FDA to change its definition of healthy? Does it really matter if, say, a Kind bar is or isn't labeled as a healthy snack? I put the question to nutrition professor Marion Nestle of New York University.

MARION NESTLE: Well, it matters a lot to Daniel Lubetzky and people who sell processed food products. They want to be able to market their products as healthy. It's a marketing term. When it's on food labels, it's about marketing. It's not about health.

AUBREY: Nestle says she doesn't have anything against Kind bars. She thinks they're pretty good. But she says if people want to have a healthy diet, they should stop relying so much on processed foods and snacks, even if a nut bar is a better choice than a Pop-Tart.

NESTLE: I mean, if people want to eat healthily, we know how to do that. That's eating lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, not eating too much junk food and balancing calories. I mean, it's really as simple as that.

AUBREY: It will likely take the FDA several years to update its definitions, but in the meantime, the FDA says it won't object to Kind bars using the marketing phrase healthy and tasty. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.