Should healthy fats be allowed to bear a "healthy" label?
The fruit-and-nut snack company Kind is pushing back after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued the company a warning letter in March for misleading labeling. The agency asked Kind to strip a "+" symbol and "healthy" claims from its packaging and website.
Kind is in the process of removing the offending terms, but the company's leadership took issue with one specific criticism -- that its snack bars contained too much saturated fat to bear the term "healthy" on the label. That fat, Kind says, comes from healthful sources, namely the bars' whole nuts and seeds.
The FDA's current guidelines require that products labeled as "healthy" contain no more than 3 grams of total fat, no more than a gram of saturated fat, and that saturated fat make up no more than 15 percent of the product's total calories. But while a low-fat diet was a hallmark of nutrition in the 1980s and 1990s, more recent nutrition guidelines eschew refined and processed low-fat foods in favor of healthy fats.
The majority of natural saturated fats come from meat and dairy products, which nutrition experts don't recommend consuming in high quantities. They do, however, recommend making "healthy swaps" and eating fat -- both saturated and unsaturated -- from nutrient-dense health foods like fish, nuts, seeds, olive oil and avocados.
On Tuesday, Kind issued a citizen petition signed by 12 high-profile nutritionists, asking the FDA to update its mandates for using the term "healthy" on packaging to include this healthful category of fatty food.
Some nutritionists see the Kind petition as a catalyst for change and applaud the effort to get different standards for whole foods, such as nuts.
"The evidence has been clear for a long time that many fats are healthy fats, and actually reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, and improve your blood-cholesterol levels," Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told The Huffington Post.
Nuts, one of the main ingredients in Kind bars, are one of the healthiest things you can eat, said Willett, who has no relationship, financial or otherwise, with the snack bar company and did not sign the citizen petition. Willett did, however, author a letter of support for the food policy changes.
"I do appreciate the fact that they are actually challenging something that does need to be challenged," he said. "That’s not to say Kind bars are one of the healthiest things, but nuts are."
The FDA's labeling guidelines were developed in 1993, and while the guidelines have been tweaked along the way (including proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts label), the bulk of the recommendations haven't changed in tandem with our increasing knowledge of nutrition.
In particular, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which meets every five years and informs the Departments of Health and Human Services' food policy, dropped its restrictions on total fat and cholesterol in its latest report, and recommended that Americans replace saturated animal fats with healthy fats from nuts, olive oil and fish. (The finalized guidelines, which will be released later this month, usually adhere closely to the preliminary panel recommendations.)
Why allow packaged food to be labeled "healthy?"
Although the current labeling regulations might appear dated, according to New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle, the regulations do serve a purpose. "The FDA’s rules were designed to keep processed food makers from adding healthy ingredients to junk food so they could be marketed as healthy," Nestle explained.
The FDA doesn't have much to say yet beyond the March letter, which press officer Lauren Kotwicki noted is not a final agency action. "The FDA prioritizes labeling matters that have the greatest public health impact," Kotwicki told HuffPost, pointing to the agency's review of the term "natural" in response to consumer requests as well as its proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts label.
As for Willett, practicality trumps idealism. If you're going to get a snack at the airport, for example, it can be helpful to know which food products are at the healthier end of the spectrum, even if they fall shy of being considered health foods.
"I think to give consumers a little bit of guidance toward which end of the spectrum something lies is not a bad thing," he said.
This story has been updated to include the FDA's labeling guidelines for total fat and Dr. Walter Willett's letter of support.
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