Thursday, May 12, 2016

'Healthy' and 'natural' with a side of skepticism -- May 12, 2016 column


After hiking in a beautiful Virginia state park last weekend, friends gathered around a picnic table. As we unpacked our lunches -- virtuous sandwiches on whole wheat and righteous chips of kale and quinoa -- Doug pulled out a bag of trail mix.

“Healthy,” the bag proclaimed in big print. Doug read the small print and frowned.

“How can this be healthy?” he demanded. “It’s got chocolate in it.”

No worries, his pals said. Chocolate is now OK – dark chocolate, anyway. Doug was unconvinced.

“Anybody want chocolate?” he asked.

We’ve all had that moment of feeling misled upon reading the fine print on an ingredient label. What we grabbed off the store shelf, lured by the promise of “healthy” or “natural,” turned out to be loaded with sugar or additives.

The Food and Drug Administration announced Tuesday it will review the definition of “healthy”; it’s already examining what it means to be “natural.”

The process of formulating new rules takes years. So we consumers need to accept the things we cannot change. Think of claims on packaged foods as puffery. Period.

The criteria the FDA uses to judge what’s “healthy” are antiquated. Under guidelines first adopted in the 1990s, canned soups, fat-free puddings and sugary cereals qualify, but not plain almonds, avocado and salmon.

This craziness happened because back then fat was Public Enemy No. 1. 

To be "healthy," a food could have 1 gram or less of saturated fat per serving and no more than 15 percent of calories from saturated fat. It also had to meet criteria in sodium, cholesterol and nutrients such as calcium and vitamin C. Sugar wasn’t even considered. Food science has moved on, and we now know there are good fats, like those in nuts and salmon.

In March 2015, the FDA sent Kind LLC a warning letter, saying it had to stop using the word “healthy” on four of its popular fruit-and-nut bars because the products had too much fat.

Kind fought back, filing a citizen petition with FDA, arguing that the agency should have rules that are consistent with current nutrition science as set forth in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines. Last month, FDA agreed and said Kind could use “healthy and tasty” on its packages as the agency reviews the definition.
The kerfuffle was great publicity for Kind, which had to change none of its ingredients. CEO and founder Daniel Lubetzky praised FDA for being “very, very open to listening” and for beginning the conversation to update the rules.

Here’s how Marion Nestle, New York University food science and nutrition professor and author of “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health,” assessed the situation on her Food Politics blog:

 “The terms `healthy’ and `natural’ help to sell food products. They are about marketing, not health. This makes life difficult for the FDA, which has the unenviable job of defining what the terms mean on food labels.”

Until the 1980s, companies were prohibited from touting foods as a possible way to reduce disease. In 1984, the Kellogg Company, maker of All-Bran cereal, and the National Cancer Institute began spreading the word that a low-fat, high-fiber diet could help reduce the risk of colon cancer. The FDA did not object because the statement was true, Clare M. Haskel wrote in the Journal of Nutrition.

Soon, though, unsubstantiated health claims flooded the market, and in 1989 Business Week magazine ran a cover story, “Health Claims for Foods are Becoming Ridiculous.” Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Nutrition Act of 1990, which allows health claims only with FDA approval.

FDA created a system for evaluating foods and has tried to keep consumers informed, but the messages are often confusing.

Chocolate, for example, has been shown in some studies to have antioxidant potential and may lower cholesterol, but its high calorie, sugar and fat content can lead to tooth decay and obesity.

Hardly a day passes without new guidance about what to eat -- or avoid eating -- to stay healthy. The ever-changing advice is frustrating, but one thing is clear:

“When it comes to food labels, `healthy’ and `natural’ are marketing terms,” says Nestle. “Their purpose is to sell food products. Caveat emptor.” 

(c)2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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