By Miansari66 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced this week that Kind LLC may label its snack bars as “healthy,” sort of. In 2015, the FDA warned Kind that several of its products were misbranded as “healthy,” and that such labeling falsely claimed that the snacks were low-fat or rich in anti-oxidants, among other things. The FDA’s letter to Kind threatened regulatory action if this and other alleged violations were not corrected. However, the FDA recently rescinded this demand and is now permitting Kind to label its snack bars “healthy,” so long as it is clearly part of the company’s philosophy and not part of a nutritional statement.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the FDA is also planning on re-evaluating its regulations concerning nutrient content claims, and plans to ask the public for comment on what should constitute the modern definition of “healthy” to match up to the current recommendations about health and eating habits.

The FDA set out standards for the term “healthy” in 1994. At that time, low fat content was the main focus for health professionals. Under the labeling standard, food can be labeled as “healthy” so long as it meets the criteria set out for fat, saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol content, in addition to having minimum amounts of nutrients like vitamins and minerals. Thus, under today’s rules, fat-free pudding cups can be marketed as healthy, but avocados cannot because they have too much fat.

After receiving its warning letter, Kind filed a citizen petition with FDA in December 2015, which challenged the FDA’s regulations governing the use of “healthy” on food labeling. In its petition, Kind requested that the FDA reevaluate its nutrient content claim regulations and amend those requirements to ensure consistency with current federal dietary recommendations. Kind argued that specific nutrient levels in a product do not dictate whether a product is healthy or not and that its snack bars contain more than 1 gram of saturated fat due to their nut content. According to Kind, “[m]any current federal labeling regulations are based on this past thinking, preventing foods that contain beneficial whole ingredients and are recommend for consumption—like nuts, avocados, olives, and salmon—from bearing the word ‘healthy’ in their labeling.”

Kind is not the only one requesting that the FDA address this labeling issue. In the House of Representative’s report relating to the agricultural appropriations bill, Congress directed the FDA to “amend its ‘healthy’ nutrient content claim regulation to be based upon significant scientific agreement,” and to issue guidance to the industry providing for the use of the word “healthy” in food labeling statements.

It’s been a busy season of soul searching for the FDA. Last November, it asked the public to comment on how the term “natural” should be used on food labels, including those with genetically modified products. These are two big issues, giving the FDA a lot on its regulatory plate.