The term "healthy" was last defined by the FDA in 1994. Time for an update.

Healthy and Tasty Kind bars
© Kind (used with permission)

Attitudes toward food have shifted significantly over the past 22 years, making an update to the official definition of "healthy" long overdue.

Last year the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) sent a letter to fruit-and-nut bar maker Kind, telling it to remove the term “healthy” from its packaging. Apparently the bars did not meet the FDA’s criteria for what healthy should be, which led to obvious outrage, since KIND bars are one of the best and cleanest options available when it comes to prepackaged snacks.

A petition and campaign were started, with Kind getting support from the general public, lawmakers, doctors, and dieticians. The FDA eventually rescinded its request, so long as “the phrase is in the descriptive paragraph outlining Kind’s philosophy and it doesn’t appear on the same display panel as nutrition information, then it doesn’t count as a nutrient claim.”

The FDA has finally kicked off a review of the official definition of “healthy,” which is long overdue. The current definition was created back in 1994, when attitudes toward food were considerably different than they are now. Back then the focus was more on fat, less on sugar, whereas now that attitude has reversed.

The Wall Street Journal points out how absurd the current guidelines are:

“[Kellogg’s] doesn’t generally market its Frosted Flakes or low-fat Pop-Tarts as ‘healthy,’ but under the current guidelines, it could. While the foods are high in sugar, they meet all the criteria, from low fat to fortified with vitamins. And fat-free pudding cups can be marketed as healthy, but avocados couldn’t because they have too much fat, according to today’s rules.”

Until now the FDA has assessed foods based on five criteria: fat, saturated fat, sodium, cholesterol, and nutritional benefits, such as vitamin C or calcium. While the criteria vary based on the food category, the rule is that snacks cannot have more than 3 grams of fat.

Updating the definition is important to many people. The Wall Street Journal reports:

“Congress also is pushing the FDA to make this issue a priority. In a House of Representatives’ report explaining its agriculture appropriations bill, the committee urges the FDA to update the regulations. The bill passed and awaits a vote on the House floor.”

The next step would be a proposal, followed by a public forum in which people could submit their research and ideas, another proposal, more adjustments, and a final implementation period. In other words, this would take years – but it is a change that has to happen.

While it’s a good step in the right direction, it’s important to remember that the healthiest foods do not come with packaging and so have no place for a nutritional label. It’s the unpackaged, unlabeled fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains – pure foods without ingredient lists – that we should be focusing on eating more than anything else.

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