What Foods Deserve to Be Labeled Healthy?

The FDA is looking for input on how to define "healthy." Whatever criteria we ultimately arrive at, food manufacturers will tweak low-nutrition foods in ways that meet those criteria without substantially improving the nutritional profile of the foods. 

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #403

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is the agency that gets to decide what kind of health claims American food manufacturers can make about their products. The claim that you’ll find on a box of Cheerios cereal, for example, stating that Cheerios helps lower your cholesterol, is allowed to be there only because the FDA has approved it. Make a claim that the FDA hasn’t approved and you may find yourself in a heap of trouble.

That’s what happened to the small company that makes KIND snack bars. KIND bars are made primarily out of nuts, whole grains, and other wholesome ingredients. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a completely unprocessed food and 10 being the most highly processed food, I’d put them at about a 3.5 or 4.  (See also: How to Vet Processed Food.) The nutrition values vary from bar to bar, but I’m impressed that there are half a dozen flavors (called Nuts and Spices) with 5 grams of added sugar or less.  

And yet,when KIND bars tried to promote their bars as being healthy, they were pursued by the FDA for making false claims. The FDA argued that KIND bars were too high in fat to be labeled healthy—even though the moderate amount of fat in these bars came from nuts. 

Fats Are No Longer the Bad Guy

Hello, FDA? It’s the 21-st Century calling. Fat is no longer considered unhealthy—particularly the healthy fats found in nuts. In fact, the American Heart Association recommends that we eat an ounce of nuts every day—and a KIND bar probably contains about half of that amount.

To their credit, KIND pushed back against this ridiculous regulation—and won. And the FDA went home to update its criteria for what kinds of foods can be labeled as “healthy.” They’re in the middle of that process right now, and we’re currently in the phase where they are soliciting comments from the public about what criteria we should use to determine whether a packaged food can be labeled as healthy.

You can be sure that industry representatives—as well as lobbyists for other points of view—will all be arguing for criteria that are friendly to their own products and/or hostile to foods they want to sanction. Dr. Neal Barnard, for example, a prominent vegan activist, is lobbying against any criteria that would allow meat products to be labeled as healthy. I’m sure that General Mills and Kellogg’s are trying to secure a definition that would include more of their ready-to-eat cereals, and so on.

The Problem with Labeling Foods Healthy

As I’ve already shared with many of you on Facebook and Twitter, I think this is a somewhat futile exercise.

Almost any criteria you can think of will exclude wholesome foods or sanction foods that aren’t particularly healthy. A requirement that limited added sugar, for example, could exclude things like regular soda but allow things like pasteurized apple juice and diet soda to be labeled as healthy. The low-fat criteria that excluded KIND bars allowed things like fat-free pudding cups to be labeled as healthy.

And no matter what criteria we ultimately arrive at, I guarantee you food manufacturers will find ways to tweak low-nutrition foods in ways that meet those criteria without substantially improving the nutritional profile of the foods.  

Healthy Is as Healthy Does

This entire conversation is missing the larger point: No food product can reasonably be declared to be healthy (or unhealthy, for that matter) in a vacuum. And if you’ve ever emailed me or posted on Facebook to ask whether a certain food was good or bad for you, you know that my next questions are always these:


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.