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The FDA plans to redefine 'healthy.' But it may take a while.




According to the Food and Drug Administration, there were four flavors of Kind bar that were misbranded when the agency reviewed them in August 2014.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, there were four flavors of Kind bar that were misbranded when the agency reviewed them in August 2014.
Ryan Kellman/NPR

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What do you look for when planning your next nibble? Does the word “healthy” ever influence your decision?

Since the mid-1990s, the FDA has defined “healthy” as a product with limited levels of fat, sodium and cholesterol. But that could all change soon. The Food and Drug Administration says it plans to re-evaluate and eventually re-define the word healthy.

The decision was spurred — in part — by the pushback they faced from Kind LLC, a company widely known for their snack bars. Last year, the FDA asked the company to stop calling their bars “healthy” because they contained too much fat to meet the criteria. The FDA is now backing away from this complaint.

Dr. David Katz is the founding director of the Griffin Prevention Research Center at Yale University. He worked with Kind LLC to petition the FDA. He spoke about the shortcomings of the current guidelines with Take Two.

What’s behind this decision to redefine the word ‘healthy?’

This grew out of what’s called the citizen’s petition to the FDA, and it was put together by leadership at Kind … And the problem was the regulations on the books at the FDA — first of all — they’re a throwback to the time when we were tossing out the baby with the bathwater. When we were unduly fat-phobic in our culture. We failed to note that some high-fat foods are extremely nutritious, like nuts and seeds and avocado in particular … This was clearly the law of unintended consequences kicking in. Those regulations were never meant to imply you can’t call almonds healthy [or] you can’t call an avocado healthy. That’s just silly.

Why did they let it go on for so long?

 

There’s a long lifecycle for changing regulations at the FDA. There are a lot of really good people there doing really good work, but it’s a federal agency. Big bureaucracy. Change is slow … They haven’t changed the regs yet. That process is just beginning … If it takes years, it won’t surprise me.

Are you finding any research that shows that a healthy label can sway consumer choices?

Yes … The people who least need the guidance of the word ‘healthy’ on a label are the ones who look at ingredient lists and nutrition fact panels and can sort that all out. The people who are most influenced by a word — ‘a good source of whole grain’ or ‘healthy’ —  are the people who tend to know the least about the details of nutrition … Those words are important, and they need to be truthful … There’s no question you’re creating confusion, and certainly everything we know about food choice tells us that if we confuse people, then they just stop trying. Then they just say, ‘forget about it; you’ll find me at Burger King,' and that’s the last thing we want.

Press the blue play button above to hear the interview. 

(This post has been updated.)