Quote Healthy Unquote

Okay, DIYeters. We need to talk. Earlier this year the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asked for input regarding the possibility of defining the word “natural” of food labels. A total of 7,690 comments were sent to the FDA on this topic. You can read them here, if you want.  I’m sure when the final decision has been made it will be all over the news. At least I hope it will.

Now, the FDA has decided they want update the definition of the word “healthy” on food labels. Again, they want input from us. Click here for the details!

For reference, here is a link to the current guidelines for food products. You can download and read the full text from the link. The important points are:

  • These guidelines are non-binding for food companies and the FDA. Food companies do not have to follow them. If a food is labeled “healthy” but does not fit the guidelines then the FDA does not have to act.
  • A claim to be “healthy” must be explained. For example: “only 1mg sodium”, or, “75% of your daily fiber.”
  • Certain nutrients are being highlighted. The FDA specifically wants guidance on how the “healthy” label should apply to foods with high levels of mono-and polyunsaturated fats (you know, the “healthy” fats) and foods which are good sources of vitamin D or potassium.
Yes, string beans are a healthy snack. But I don't think they need or necessarily deserve a label that says "healthy".

Yes, string beans are a healthy snack. But I don’t think they need or necessarily deserve a label that says “healthy”.

Those are the facts, as I have been able to find them; here is my opinion. I don’t think the word “healthy” should appear on food labels at all. No single food offers everything the average healthy human needs to sustain their health. For example, if you fulfill your daily calorie needs with nothing but kale you will not get enough protein. You will also probably be unhappy because you are eating kale, and your emotional health is important, too. Likewise, foods which may not be considered healthy on their own can still have a place in an overall healthy diet. For example, you might get your family to try Brussels sprouts if you sautè them with just a little bacon. The benefits of that cruciferous vegetable intake more than balance the indulgence in salt and saturated fat.

Furthermore, if certain foods are allowed to advertise themselves as inherently healthy it may make foods that do not hit certain bench marks seem less beneficial. Imagine a theoretical yogurt. It contains no active cultures, is sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, and contains artificial flavor. It has been fortified with vitamin D, though, so it can say “healthy” on the label.  Now imagine competitive brand sweetened and flavored only with fruit juice and containing active cultures. It has not been fortified with vitamin D, so it cannot have the word healthy on the label. Are you seeing the same label vs. reality issue I am?

Food is complicated. Nutrition is so complicated that the US government reviews their nutrition guidelines every five years. Saying any one food has an infallible healthfulness oversimplifies the interactions between nutrients, some of which we are just beginning to understand. Evocative words like “healthy”, in my opinion, have no place on food labels. Do you have a different opinion? Share in the comments. Then, share with the FDA at the link above.

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