WASHINGTON — When the Food and Drug Administration declared that KIND bars — that sticky fusion of fruit, nuts, chocolate, and other treats — couldn’t use the word “healthy” on its wrappers in 2015, the KIND company took offense.
It filed a petition objecting to the standards the agency used when considering fat content and asked that its tasty bars be permitted to be called “healthy,” after all.
The FDA relented — then went on a mission to redefine what that word actually means.
That effort will continue Thursday as the FDA convenes a public meeting on the issue, after having asked for broader input. After the meeting, the FDA will consider the comments and written submissions, and decide how to update its guidelines.
More than 870 individuals and groups have responded so far, among them: food company lobbyists, nutritionists, mothers, consumer groups, and even a grammarian, Holly Frost, who asked the FDA to protect the English language by asking the public to eat “healthfully,” instead of “healthy.”
“It’s time to redefine healthy,” said Lindsay Moyer, senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington nonprofit that works on food policy. “We’d like to find a way to use the definition of ‘healthy’ to steer people toward less processed foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, whole grains, fish, and poultry.”
Moyer’s group would also like sharp limits on sugar, and a rule that any foods that tout themselves as whole grain be 100 percent whole grain.
STAT’s perusal of the public comments filed with FDA showed that many Americans stood up for healthy fats, such as those found in nuts and salmon, and that most letter-writers were concerned about sugar.
Some of the respondents had an obvious financial interest. The International Tree Nut Council Nutrition Research & Education Foundation, for instance, filed an eight-page note defending nuts of all kinds, and asked the FDA both for permission to use qualified health claims for nuts and heart disease and also to welcome Brazil nuts, cashews, and macadamias into the healthy fold, since recent research has backed their healthiness.
Not to be outdone, the Egg Nutrition Center proposed that eggs, as a high-protein, nutrient-dense food, be considered healthy.
Kara Shifler, on behalf of the Prevention, Research, and Outreach Program at Pennsylvania State University, echoed many respondents in her proposal that all whole plant-based foods without added ingredients should be defined as healthy, as should whole or unrefined grains.
Such a definition, Shifler said, would align with the general consensus of the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, and the National Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
There were also those who were concerned with food colorings and chemicals, as well as how the food was cooked.
“No products that are fried (whether fresh like chips or frozen like chicken nuggets),” wrote Laura Albanese, who identified herself as a consumer. “Ideally, no packaged food-like products should be labeled healthy, except for maybe hummus or tomato sauce that’s low in sugar.”
The Grocery Manufacturers Association asked the FDA for more time to weigh in.
“The scope of the issues related to the use of the implied nutrient content claim ‘healthy’ is quite complex and scientific in nature,” the group said.
And some respondents felt that the FDA should not let any food be identified as healthy.
“What is considered healthy is constantly changing,” said Madeline Skitzki, who identified herself as a consumer. “It is impossible for the FDA’s definition of ‘healthy” to keep pace with changes in nutritional understanding.”