Earlier this year, the FDA sent the maker of Kind Bars a stern message. The company, which sells granola bars, among other things, was using the word "healthy" on its packaging. And that wasn't going to fly.
"The labels of the aforementioned products bear the claim 'Healthy and tasty, convenient and wholesome,' " the warning, which is available online, said. "However, none of your products listed above meet the requirements for use of the nutrient content claim 'healthy.' "
Specifically, the government was talking about the company's Fruit & Nut Almond & Apricot, Fruit & Nut Almond & Coconut, Plus Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate + Protein, and Fruit & Nut Dark Chocolate Cherry Cashew bars, which, it said, would be removed from stores if the packaging wasn't changed. The bars, which are essentially just nuts and fruit and little sugar, had too much fat for the FDA's liking, and Kind acquiesced, because what choice did it have?
But the battle is hardly over. By engaging the company publicly, the government opened the doors for a broader and thornier discussion, which revolves around what has become an increasingly provocative point of contention: What exactly does "healthy" even mean? And Kind gladly stepped through.
Last week, the company announced that it was launching a citizen petition, protesting what it argues is an outdated and misleading official policy regarding the use of the word "healthy." While Kind's protest comes with a tinge of self-interest — after all, the company would like nothing more than to return to its old labels — it raises an interesting question about what can and can't be called healthy under current regulations.
Per FDA guidelines, the moniker is allowed to be used only when foods contain 3 grams or less of fat and 1 gram or less of saturated fat (for seafood and meat it's 5 grams of fat and 2 grams of saturated fat). That, Kind points out, precludes several foods widely considered healthy by doctors and nutritionists — nuts, avocados, olives and salmon, most notably.
"The current regulatory approach for food labeling claims limits the ability of food producers to tell consumers that products containing certain ingredients — such as nuts, whole grains, seafood, fruits, and vegetables — are healthy and are recommended as part of a beneficial diet," David Katz, who is the director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University and a senior nutrition advisor to KIND, said in a statement.
The government's is also reportedly reconsidering its long-held villainization of fats, which, Kind says, could soon put the regulations at odds with the new Dietary Guidelines, which are expected to be released any day now.
But that argument doesn't hold up, according to Marion Nestle, who is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition & Food Studies at New York University. While she concedes that Kind's product is admirable, she says that the company's campaign is misleading.
"Health claims are about marketing; they are not about health," she said.