ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The Food and Drug Administration is re-evaluating its definition of what counts as healthy food. The current definition which originated decades ago still allows foods like fat-free muffins and sugar-laden cereals to carry the label healthy because they are low in fat.
But there's been an evolution in thinking about what makes a good diet, and as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports the FDA is playing catch-up.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: If a food company wants to put a healthy claim on its label, the existing regulations stipulate that it can contain only very low levels of total fat per serving. This means that many foods including, for instance, nuts don't qualify. This definition became a problem for Daniel Lubetzky, the CEO of Kind bars. His company markets popular nut bars which are pretty high in fat. They've been using the phrase healthy and tasty on their wrappers until the Food and Drug Administration complained.
DANIEL LUBETZKY: A year ago, we received a letter from the FDA advising us that we could not use the term healthy in the back of our wrappers.
AUBREY: Lubetzky says he was surprised.
LUBETZKY: My initial thought was, what? That didn't really make sense to us.
AUBREY: The FDA regulations are a holdover from an era where fat was vilified. Throughout the '90s and early 2000s, millions of Americans were given the advice that low-fat or fat-free was best. And we're only now emerging from that thinking.
Tom Sherman of Georgetown University Medical School says as the science has evolved, so, too, should our food labeling.
THOMAS SHERMAN: Previously, we used the terms low in fat to mean healthy, and high in fat had a pejorative context to it.
AUBREY: But there's been a major shift. As even Pop-Tart-lovers now have likely heard, the evidence shows that too much sugar and highly processed grains can be bad for us, whereas foods such as fatty fish, avocados and nuts are helpful. In other words, some fat is good, and that's the message people should be getting.
SHERMAN: So low in sugar, higher in fat, especially for foods like nuts which are just wonderful components of our diet.
AUBREY: Now lots of Americans have gotten the message. Consumption of nuts is way up over the last few years. And surveys show our fat phobia is fading. So is anyone waiting around for the FDA to change its definition of healthy? Does it really matter if, say, a Kind bar is or isn't labeled as a healthy snack? I put the question to nutrition professor Marion Nestle of New York University.
MARION NESTLE: Well, it matters a lot to Daniel Lubetzky and people who sell processed food products. They want to be able to market their products as healthy. It's a marketing term. When it's on food labels, it's about marketing. It's not about health.
AUBREY: Nestle says she doesn't have anything against Kind bars. She thinks they're pretty good. But she says if people want to have a healthy diet, they should stop relying so much on processed foods and snacks, even if a nut bar is a better choice than a Pop-Tart.
NESTLE: I mean, if people want to eat healthily, we know how to do that. That's eating lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, not eating too much junk food and balancing calories. I mean, it's really as simple as that.
AUBREY: It will likely take the FDA several years to update its definitions, but in the meantime, the FDA says it won't object to Kind bars using the marketing phrase healthy and tasty. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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