FDA to Redefine “Healthy” — why this isn’t as simple as it seems

Katlin Smith
May 13, 2016 · 4 min read

In an unprecedented move, the FDA is opening up to public opinion how the word “healthy” is defined; you can read more here. This comes after KIND bars were asked to remove the word “healthy” from their packages due to fat content — fat content that was derived from nuts.

I’ve never believed that KIND bars were the epitome of nutrition; we would all be better off eating a handful of raw nuts and berries or veggies, but it seems hardly fair to rank KIND bars behind the health of sugary cereals or fruit juices that are only 10% juice and 90% water and corn syrup.

Right now, FDA guidance requires that in order to use a “healthy” term on your food package, your product must be:

  • Low fat, defined as containing less than 3g of fat per serving and does not contain more than 30 percent of calories from fat per 100g serving size
  • Low saturated fat, defined as 1g or less of saturated fatty acids and not more than 15 percent of calories from saturated fat per 100 g serving size
  • The disclosure level or less for cholesterol
  • At least 10 percent of the RDI or DRV per RA of one or more of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein or fiber.

And by the way, it took me a considerable amount of time to find and decipher these guidelines from the FDA’s website, if that tells you anything.

However, this fails to truly capture what we are beginning to understand today to be good for people’s health. These outdated and incorrect claims also lead to a host of marketing claims that at best I’d call false advertising.

“Healthy” breakfast cereals, per the FDA guidelines

The public’s definition of healthy has shifted pretty dramatically over the past 15 years. Jump in the time machine with me for a minute to reflect on what we believed in the year 2000…

Low fat. High fiber. Whole grain. Low cholesterol. Ingredients don’t matter. Wash your hands & avoid bacteria. In fact, check out these fun throwbacks to magazines from the 1980s and 90s:

1980s and 1990s magazine covers

Flash forward to today & what many believe today. There is such a thing as good fat. Protein is important. Fat doesn’t make you fat and cholesterol doesn’t give you high cholesterol. Consume probiotics. Avoid processed foods. Wow, we’ve changed!

Current magazine covers

The FDA isn’t in an easy spot. It’s difficult to conclusively prove what is and isn’t healthy. Studies quote each other. Studies show conflicting data. John Oliver recently spent 20 minutes of his show talking about what he calls the “study of the week” phenomenon in the nutrition industry. This shows how immensely important it is for us to do our own research and test out what works best for us as individuals.

It takes decades from the time a first piece of research emerges to the point where the FDA can actually create guidance. In the case of trans fats, it took over 30 years between when the first studies condemning the health of trans fats and when the FDA removed them from the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list.

The challenge of defining healthy is further compounded by bio-individuality… what works for one person may not work for another. Many people find a vegan diet works for them. Others find that a high meat, low carb diet work for them. How then can one government agency define what works for a diverse population of 320 million? There’s not a one-size fits all.

I’m not advocating for the FDA to lay down and avoid regulating the terms used to market food — quite the opposite. Many consumers are happy to use a “healthy”, “natural”, or “organic” label as permission to say it is okay to eat a food in quantity. How many consumers are purchasing “organic” chicken nuggets simply because they say “organic?”. It’s critical that we give people information we know to be true and that isn’t misleading as they make food decisions.

I press the FDA to focus on what we do know to be true as well as the rigor, quantity, and bias of the research backing the guidance. Studies funded by large corporations, studies without adequate controls, studies that all point back to the same data… they’re all suspicious.

What do I know to be true for everyone? Sugar and simple carbohydrates are a huge culprit of disease in the US, feeding everything from Diabetes, obesity-related diseases, even Alzheimer’s (reference). Simple food is always better than highly-processed food, highly processed oils, and food derivatives. Cholesterol, salt, fat… they can all be good or bad and it’s misleading to regulate them as black or white.

What do you consider healthy? How should the FDA define this tricky term?