FDA Re-Evaluates Labels for 'Healthy' and 'Natural' Foods

Consumer Reports' survey says many shoppers look for the "natural" label.

May 10, 2016, 4:25 PM

— -- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will now allow KIND Healthy Snacks to label its products as “healthy and tasty,” revising a former decision that the company's snacks did not meet the criteria for a “healthy” food.

The FDA announced today that it will allow KIND to label its products as “healthy” in a way that is “clearly presented as its corporate philosophy,” but “isn’t represented as a nutrient content claim,” FDA spokeswoman Lauren Kotwicki told ABC News in a statement. In other words, “healthy” is allowed to be on the KIND wrapper if it’s part of an overall company philosophy, but not part of the Nutrition Facts.

The FDA has strict guidelines about what can be labeled “healthy” in terms of nutrient content. Currently, the definition involves falling below a certain threshold of total fat, saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol, while containing a particular amount of “beneficial nutrients.”

FDA's Guidelines on Which Foods Can Be Labeled 'Healthy'

“We’re all about whole ingredients, about what foods people are putting into their bodies -- as opposed to fat levels and sodium levels,” Justin Mervis, general counsel for KIND Healthy Snacks, told ABC News. “We received a warning letter in March 2015 stating that KIND shouldn’t be putting ‘healthy’ on our labels or our website because of the fat content of the nuts in our products -- but these are some of the best ingredients people can eat.”

While not everyone may agree that rigid cutoffs of fat and sodium levels are the ideal criteria for “healthy,” some nutrition experts worry that the distinction between a “healthy” philosophy and “healthy” nutrient content may be lost on consumers. This war of words in nutrition labeling is the latest in an ongoing negotiation of what constitutes a healthy diet -- and who should get to decide.

“Terms like ‘healthy’ and ‘natural’ are really loaded,” said Keith Ayoob, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. “When science and government do not agree with the popular culture, you get this kind of a risk.”

Defining 'Natural'

Consumer Reports released today what it calls a recent “nationally-representative phone survey” of 1,001 U.S. adults, which it says also highlights the salience of the issue of labeling. The report found that the majority of consumers surveyed buy foods labeled as “natural” (73 percent), exceeding the 58 percent who buy “organic” food.

The word “natural,” though, has no clear definition, and is a topic of active debate at the FDA. Today also marks the final day of the “open comment” period in which the FDA is soliciting input from the public and the industry regarding the use of the term “natural” on labels, and what the definition of “natural” should be.

Historically, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.

“Without a formal definition, people read into it what they want to read into it,” Ayoob emphasized. “And that can be misleading.”

Re-Evaluating 'Healthy'

In addition to direct conversations with FDA officials aimed at adding “healthy” back to its packaging, KIND launched a citizen’s petition that helped to nudge the FDA to re-think its categorization of “healthy” foods in general. For example, company officials said they believe foods that are nutritious but high in fat -- like almonds or avocados -- should earn the “healthy” label.

“We really firmly believe that if we as a community focus on the real foods, everything else is going to sort itself out,” KIND founder and CEO Daniel Lubetzky told ABC News. “Obsessively thinking about the macronutrient guidelines in an artificial functional form results in perverse incentives for the food community to manufacture ‘Frankenfoods’ rather than to celebrate real foods.”

The FDA has been very receptive to re-evaluating the definition of “healthy,” said Kotwicki, the agency's spokeswoman.

“Consumers want to make informed food choices and it is FDA’s responsibility to help them by ensuring labels provide accurate and reliable nutrition information,” Kotwicki said. “In light of evolving nutrition research, forthcoming Nutrition Facts Labeling final rules, and a citizen petition, we believe now is an opportune time to reevaluate regulations concerning nutrient content claims, generally, including the term ‘healthy.’”

She said the FDA plans to solicit public comment on these issues.

Ayoob said some clarity on the definition of “natural” ingredients and “healthy” foods would go a long way toward easing some of the confusion among consumers.

“No definition is going to satisfy everybody, but it would help to have a definition,” he said. “Otherwise, people use the term indiscriminately, and it becomes the Wild West -- everything becomes ‘natural,’ which means the term has no power anymore.”

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