Roughly a year ago, KIND Snacks CEO Daniel Lubetzky received a letter from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about his products. Among other nutrition claims, the FDA took issue with the use of the word “healthy” on KIND snack bar labels. Now, the FDA has not only affirmed that KIND can use “healthy” on its labels again, but also confirmed that it intends to reevaluate the regulatory definition of the term.
Of course, the issue with KIND snack bar labeling is not the sole reason that the FDA is reconsidering how “healthy” can be used. Rather, the reconsideration was prompted by a number of factors, including upcoming new rules on Nutrition Facts panels and new nutrition research since “healthy” was officially defined in 1994. The FDA also noted the citizen petition filed by KIND in December asking the agency to update its labeling requirements in light of new dietary recommendations.
“In light of evolving nutrition research,” FDA spokeswoman Lauren Kotwicki told the press, “we believe now is an opportune time to reevaluate regulations concerning nutrient content claims, generally, including the term ‘healthy.’”
“It’s pretty huge,” David Katz, a senior nutrition adviser to KIND, one of the citizen petition’s signers, and founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center told USA Today. “They recognize this is really a problem for public health nutrition. It was never intended to say ‘don’t eat almonds.’ But that effectively is what it’s saying in this instance.”
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The current regulations specify that “healthy” may only be used as a nutrient conent claim when a food contains 3 grams or less total fat and 1 gram or less saturated fat per serving, with the exception of fish and meat, which are allowed 5 grams or less total fat and 2 grams or less saturated fat per serving. Under these requirements, foods such as fat-free pudding or low-fat toaster pastry can bear “healthy” claims while naturally fatty foods like almonds, avocados, and salmon cannot.
“The world of nutrition is increasingly saying, enough with nutrients let’s talk about food,” Katz added. “An avocado is extremely high in fat but it’s a really nutritious food.”
It could be several years before any changes are actually made. If the FDA decides to update the definition, it will likely first host a comment period during which food makers, experts and the public can submit their ideas and research on what “healthy” means. (The initial comment period for the term “natural” just concluded yesterday.) Then, the FDA will propose rule changes, offer another comment period, and make its final ruling. An implementation period would follow to give food makers time to comply.
Still, as the Wall Street Journal put it, the decision “marks a major step in the FDA’s effort to catch up to changing ideas about health and eating habits.” Dr. Walter Willet, a nutrition professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the Journal that it will likely serve as a test case for the broader issue of outdated nutrition claims. “It’s time that the FDA reviewed the rules for health claims, and this is a good nudge to do so,” he said.
Congress is also ‘nudging’ the FDA to prioritize the issue. In February, four Democratic senators – Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both of Oregon, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Chuck Schumer of New York – backed the citizen petition. Even more recently, the House of Representatives’ report explaining its agriculture appropriations bill urged the FDA to update the regulations around food makers using the term “healthy … to be based upon significant scientific agreement.” The bill passed last month and awaits a vote on the House floor.
At the same time, Lubetzky said KIND is “not in a hurry” to change its labels again. At the FDA’s behest, the company made several small changes to its labels last year. Now it is allowed to add “healthy and tasty” on its bars as long as the phrase doesn’t appear on the same display panel as nutrition information, in which case the FDA ruled it wouldn’t count as a nutrient claim.
Lubetzky noted that the FDA’s decision to reconsider the definition of “healthy” is more significant than what KIND puts on its packaging, telling USA Today, “It’s very energizing to feel that our voices were heard, and the FDA recognizes that the regulation didn’t really make sense.”