It’s a new year, and there’s a new chance to cleanse your cupboards of the junk and focus on food that’s more natural and healthy. The trouble is, when we see those words on food labels, they can be misleading.
Back in March, the FDA sent a warning to the makers of Kind bars, ordering that the word “healthy” be removed from the labeling on some of its popular, nut-dense bars. So Kind is now asking the FDA to revamp its definition of the term, reminding consumers just how vague the definitions can be.
The FDA argues that the bars “do not meet the requirements for the use of the nutrient content claim” due to their fat content. Under food regulations, the term “healthy” can only be applied to certain categories of food—particularly those low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol—and the food must contain a certain percentage of vitamins. Some Kind bars surpass the limit of three grams of total fat and one gram of saturated fat per serving.
But Kind, which has billed itself as a healthy alternative to other snacks, is fighting back. In December, it submitted a citizen petition to the FDA, requesting that the agency revise its requirements for labeling to reflect more up-to-date opinions on fat intake, which exempt certain foods that are now considered beneficial.
“Today’s regulations preclude nutrient-rich foods such as nuts, avocados, olives, and salmon from using the term ‘healthy’ as a nutrient content claim,” the petition says. The company wants such ingredients to be excluded from the total fat or saturated fat count.
The case shows just how complex food labels can be. Many consumers assume that the words “healthy,” “natural,” and “organic” on labels are somewhat interchangeable, when in fact the rules and even the federal agencies that govern them are different. “Natural” is barely enforceable while “healthy” is, and “organic” is regulated totally separately by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It refers to how a food was produced, rather than to its ingredients.
Debate and confusion over the specific terms that fit into this overall picture has stretched decades, since the first attempts at regulation.
In 1994, legislation went into effect that allowed the FDA authority to authorize nutrient content claims, including how to define “healthy.” They’ve remained virtually unchanged since then. Proposed changes for revamping the nutrition facts labeling have been under review since 2014 but would not change how “healthy” is defined.
An FDA spokesperson says they will “review and consider the [Kind] request, and ultimately respond directly to the petitioner.” The agency declined to reveal whether there is any effort to redefine the term “healthy” currently under way.
“Certainly they’re raising some good questions that the FDA will need to consider as it moves forward,” says Barbara Schneeman, who served as the director of the FDA’s Office of Nutrition, Labeling and Dietary Supplements until 2012 and is now a professor emeritus of nutrition at the University of California, Davis. While current information emphasizes nutrient information, she believes more is needed to guide consumers into a holistic diet. “That’s often what consumers are interested in: How does this product fit within a healthy dietary pattern?”
But it’s not just a battle over the word “healthy.” An even more divisive label claim—“natural”—has already seen multiple days in court. The FDA does not have a formal definition for its use on food products. Instead, it has a “nonbinding advisory opinion” that allows the natural label to be affixed if a product contains “nothing artificial or synthetic” nor anything “that would not normally be expected to be in the food.”
This has, predictably, led to confusion. A 2014 survey by Consumer Reports found that two-thirds of Americans believe “natural” means that the product has no artificial ingredients, pesticides, or genetic engineering.
The subsequent petition circulated by Consumer Reports to ban the “natural” designation explains: “Meat labeled as ‘natural’ can come from animals that were raised with daily doses of antibiotics and other drugs, given artificial growth hormones, fed genetically engineered soy and corn feed and other artificial ingredients and continually confined indoors.”
But there is some evidence that the government is beginning to take note. In November, the FDA issued a formal request for comment from the public to revamp the definition of “natural,” allowing experts and consumers to weigh in.
It isn’t the first time the call for a definition has been made. During Schneeman’s time at the FDA, the international food standards body, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, sought a definition for the label. It gave up due to its difficulty. “As soon as you get people to talk about it, it becomes harder and harder for them to say, ‘Here’s the bright line: This is natural, this is not,’” she says. “There are extremes we agree with, but there’s a gray middle ground.”
Even if a consensus is reached, don’t expect results tomorrow. It could take years for change to manifest, Schneeman says. She recalls one update during her tenure—to the nutrition facts information—that spanned nearly a decade. Making a change requires “legal and scientific analysis and political will to move forward with something.”
“Start asking your friends what they think of as ‘natural,’” she says. “You’ll see how difficult it can be.”
Nina Strochlic writes for National Geographic magazine. She’s a Daily Beast alum. You can find her on Twitter.