Which afternoon snack do you think is healthier: a handful of almonds or a handful of Frosted Flakes?
According to the Food and Drug Administration’s current definition of the word “healthy,” you should grab the Frosted Flakes.
The agency announced this month that it will be reevaluating its regulations on which foods can be labeled “healthy,” as well as other nutrient claims, after decades of evolution in the field.
“Just because a food contains certain ingredients that are considered good for you, such as nuts or fruit, it does not mean that food can bear a ‘healthy’ nutrient claim,” FDA spokeswoman Lauren Kotwicki wrote in an email to the Los Angeles Times.
Current food regulations reflect the more simplistic views from the 1980s and 1990s. As such, food can only be marketed as healthy if it meets five criteria: fat, saturated fat, sodium, cholesterol and beneficial nutrients, such as Vitamin C or Calcium.
When the term “healthy” was first officially defined in 1994, low fat content was the primary focus for health professionals. Sugar content, processed chemicals and sodium levels were not yet on the FDA’s or most nutritionists’ radar.
For this reason, foods like Kellogg Co.’s Frosted Flakes and Pop-Tarts and Campbell’s SpaghettiOs can be marketed as healthy. Though they are all still high in sugar and processed chemicals, they meet all the current criteria, as they are low in fat and are fortified with vitamins.
Meanwhile, foods like salmon, avocado and almonds could not be marketed as healthy under the current regulations, because of their high content of fat per serving.
Kind, makers of the fruit and nut bars, discovered firsthand how outdated the FDA’s regulations are when they received a warning letter to stop using the word healthy on its packaging. As most of Kind’s bars are made with almonds and other nuts, they do not meet the requirement for low fat content.
Kind has since petitioned the FDA to change the requirements and has received support from doctors, dietitians and lawmakers around the country.
“We very much hope the FDA will change the definition of healthy, so that you don’t end up in a silly situation where a toaster pastry or sugary cereal can be considered healthy and a piece of salmon or a bunch of almonds cannot,” Kind Chief Executive Daniel Lubetzky said in an interview.
Congress is pushing the FDA to make this issue a priority, as it affects how agricultural companies can market their products in the future. However, the process will still likely take several years.
If the FDA changes the definition, it will first propose updating the “healthy” definition, followed by a comment period for food makers and the public to submit their ideas and research what “healthy” means. Then the FDA will present its proposed rule change, followed by another comment period, the final rule and an implementation period to give food makers time to comply.
It would serve as a test case in a long list of necessary FDA regulation updates surrounding nutrition — changes many nutritionists agree are finally time to make.