Recently, the FDA warned Kind that 4 of its nut-based bars contain too much saturated fat to be labeled "healthy." Here's why that term needs an overhaul.

April 16, 2015

You may have heard about the brouhaha regarding a warning letter the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent to Kind, LLC regarding four of its bars: Kind Fruit & Nut Almond & Apricot, Kind Fruit & Nut Almond & Coconut, Kind Plus Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate + Protein, and Kind Plus Dark Chocolate Cherry Cashew + Antioxidants.

In a nutshell, FDA rules state that in order for a product to use the word “healthy” it must, among other things, be low in total fat and saturated fat per serving. Since the Kind bars in question contain nuts, as well as coconut, which are high in fat, they don’t meet this criteria.

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In addition, the FDA objected to the use of “+” (plus), which also has a legal definition, which entails providing at least 10% of the recommended daily intake for vitamins and minerals, or fortification in accordance with certain FDA policies. Again, some Kind bars don’t comply. If you’re interested in the nitty gritty, here’s the full letter the government agency sent to Kind.

So, as a nutritionist, what’s my take on this? Here are my two major thoughts.

The legal definition of “healthy” needs an overhaul

I would be hard-pressed to find a colleague who doesn’t agree with me that nuts are one of the healthiest foods on the planet. In addition to the numerous studies on their health benefits, we also know that not all fat—and even not all saturated fat—is created equal. I’ve long been an advocate of eating more “good” high-fat foods, including nuts, dark chocolate, avocado, and coconut, which have been linked to better satiety, anti-inflammatory properties, and even thermogenesis, an increase in calorie burning in the hours after a meal.

In addition, “good” fats are bundled with other key nutrients including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and, in some cases protein, all lending to their healthfulness. On the flip side, many foods that are low in total and saturated fat, and meet the criteria for the term "healthy," are foods I wouldn't recommend because they don’t meet my clean eating standards.

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Nutrition is an evolving science, and I think we’re at the point where the notion of what’s “healthy” has expanded in the minds of both experts and consumers. In my opinion, healthfulness should take into account not just new research about issues like fat, but also how food is grown or produced and its impact on the planet, as well as human health. In other words, “healthy” is more about nutrition than nutrients.

Ironically, there is no legal definition for the term “natural” and while I’m a huge advocate of natural foods, I don’t recommend many products that carry the term—for why check out my previous post 3 Ways to Tell if a ‘Natural’ Product is Actually Good For You.

Proper food labeling is important, but there should be updates and priorities

I understand why there are legal definitions for food label terms and Nutrition Facts panels. Once upon a time in the not-too-distant past, food manufacturers were able to set their own serving sizes, so if a food contained a lot of something people were trying to avoid, like calories or sugar, they could make the serving size tiny (imagine a pint of ice cream being labeled as having eight or more servings). Tactics like this led to more oversight and standardization, but obviously the system is far from perfect–check out my previous post 5 Most Confusing Food Label Terms.

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Bottom line, I think a lack of regulation altogether would be pandemonium, but this particular FDA action left many people, myself included, scratching their heads and thinking, “Really? That’s where you’re going to focus your resources?” I think there are bigger issues at hand.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Chat with us on Twitter by mentioning @goodhealth and @CynthiaSass.

Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the New York Yankees MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Cynthia is a three time New York Times best selling author, and her brand new book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Connect with her on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.

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