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Altruistic or a ploy? Snack maker spurs FDA to redefine “healthy”

Beth Mole

FDA asks public for help as new food industry-funded org fights food-industry sway.

Next month, the US Food and Drug Administration will hold a public hearing to gather consumers’ thoughts, suggestions, and hopes for food allowed to be labeled “healthy.” The agency made this announcement Thursday.
The hearing is the latest step in the FDA’s months-long effort to modernize and redefine the term. They hope to come up with a fresh, science-backed definition that will help consumers make smart choices at the grocery store. That effort was spurred in late 2015 by critics who argued that the current definition is out of date and that food industry interests had tainted it.
But one bit of this story might give readers pause: the criticism was spearheaded by a member of the food industry, which, of course, has its own interests for redefining the term.
Determining what foods are healthy may, at first glance, seem easy. But it’s actually tricky: is a food healthy simply because it has little of the things we should eat sparingly, such as added sugars and saturated fats? Or is it healthy if it’s overflowing with things we should be sure to eat, such as vitamins or minerals? Or is it healthy if it manages some well-balanced mix of nutrients?
The idea of labeling a particular food item as healthy becomes even more shaky when you consider the latest federal dietary guidelines, which urge consumers to focus on eating patterns rather than individual food choices. In other words, what’s healthy (or maybe unhealthy) might be relative, depending on what other foods you eat, as well as your personal health status.
There’s also the perception question: what do people think healthy means when they see it on a label? And what do they want it to mean?
The agency is keen to hear the answers. In a September blog, Douglas Balentine, director of the FDA’s Office of Nutrition and Food Labeling, wrote that figuring out a new definition “may take some time, but we want to get it right.”
So does Daniel Lubetzky, founder of Kind LLC, which makes Kind Bars.
Back in 2015, the FDA informed Lubetzky in a letter that the company was improperly using the term “healthy” on some of its snack bar labels. The bars, the agency said, failed to meet the standard because they weren’t low in saturated fat, among other problems.

Nutrition, kind of

Currently, the agency allows manufacturers to label their products “healthy” if they have a fat profile predominately made up of “good” kinds of fats (mono and polyunsaturated fats) or if they contain at least 10 percent of the daily recommended intake of potassium or vitamin D, two under-consumed nutrients in the US.
Lubetzky responded with a citizen petition (PDF) to get the FDA to change the definition. He noted that several foods that nutrition researchers and health experts recommend for people to include in their diet—such as salmon, nuts, olives, and avocados—would not meet the FDA’s definition of “healthy.” Lubetzky drew a straight line between the current definition of “healthy” and the food industry-fueled push for diets low in fat—but not necessarily low in sugar.
As Ars has reported many times before, the food industry has a long history of influencing nutrition research and policy. Notably, for this case, researchers recently revealed that sugar industry executives had paid Harvard scientists to downplay the role of sugar in heart disease back in the 1960s. The meddling influenced dietary guidelines for decades by emphasizing the harms of fats.
Last year, the FDA backed off Kind and said the company could keep healthy on its labels while the FDA worked out a new definition. But Lubetzky isn't done with the issue. This week, he announced that he’s pledging $25 million of his own money to start the organization Feed the Truth. The organization will focus on revealing industry meddling in nutrition through investigative journalism and other public health campaigns. For his part, Lubetzky says that he’s giving money and will let nutritionists do the rest. He emphasizes that he will have no other influence or involvement.
But not getting involved may be a difficult thing to do, particularly as he tries to market Kind bars as healthy and the company as altruistic. In an interview with The New York Times, Lubetzky emphasized that Feed the Truth is not intended to be part of Kind’s marketing. Yet, he said, “I would hope that people say, ‘OK, these guys are doing the right thing for society. I'm going to be more loyal to the brand.’”
Altruistic or a ploy? Snack maker spurs FDA to redefine “healthy” Reviewed by Chidinma C Amadi on 2:55 PM Rating: 5

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