Not-So-Kind Facts on Food Labeling

Health claims and misleading labeling is top of the news feeds as the debate over what is truly “healthy” rages on.  There is a long list of technical definitions for health claims based on government guidelines and the question is whether or not they are truly evidence based.

Recently, the FDA cracked down on Kind Bars for their labeling of certain products as “healthy” or “+” both of which carry specific requirements.  The FDA notified Kind Snacks that 4 of their items did not meet the labeling requirements for Saturated fat or did not list details in the correct locations on the label.  The company is eagerly complying with the FDA and working to adjust the labels on their products to be in accordance with the government standards.

While healthy to one person can absolutely mean something different to another, when it comes to informing the public, having strict standards is generally a good thing, in my opinion.  Personally, I would consider a bar with real food ingredients that has saturated fat from plant sources, like coconut, “healthy,” but having an arm of the government policing the quagmire of false health claims and modern day “snake oil” is of huge importance.  In the end, we can all make our own choices, but knowing companies have to adhere to certain standards and offer disclosure is reassuring, even if we don’t always agree with the technical standards, like the issues around plant-based vs. animal based saturated fat.

One of the points brought up by Dr. Walt Willett, professor epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, in a recent NPR piece on this story, is that the current FDA guidelines may not have incorporated the latest, USDA Dietary Guidelines for 2015, which do have a much stronger emphasis on the benefits of a plant-based diet.  Read more on this here.   While some sources of saturated fat in processed and packaged foods, like palm oil and trans-fat laden hydrogenated oils would be best to avoid, those with saturated fat coming from nuts is a different story.  Nuts have been shown to have benefit in terms of reducing risk for overall death and specifically heart disease and lowering LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels and may also be cancer preventive.

Health Claims in Question

While sizing up a packaged product, remember that Not All Calories are Created Equal.  Here are some of the definitions in question:

  • Healthy =  “a food can make a “healthy” claim only if it has 1 gram or less of saturated fat per serving and gets no more than 15 percent of its calories from saturated fat.”
  • The term Plus or “+” used on a bar = “ 10 percent more of the nutrients than a bar the FDA has deemed representative of the snack bar category.”

With the crack down on health claims boasted on food packages, it would be helpful to start to better police claims on Dietary Supplements, which have a much less stringent regulatory process compared to food and medications, thanks to the 1994 DSHEA or Dietary Supplement Health & Education Act which essentially allowed supplement manufacturers to market their products without demonstrating safety or efficacy prior to placing on the shelf for purchase, as long as there is a disclaimer statement, that we’ve all seen!

Buyers Beware

According to the FDA’s website, “In that FDA has limited resources to analyze the composition of food products, including dietary supplements, it focuses these resources first on public health emergencies and products that may have caused injury or illness…The agency does not analyze dietary supplements before they are sold to consumers… FDA does not have resources to analyze dietary supplements sent to the agency by consumers who want to know their content. Instead, consumers may contact the manufacturer or a commercial laboratory for an analysis of the content.”  In other words, buyers beware!

Eat Real Food, Read Food Labels

This all speaks to the importance of eating real food as often as possible.  Read labels for ingredients first and try to avoid items, like these 9 Not-So-Healthy “Health Foods” or Top 5 Ingredients You Should Never Eat or Top 5 Chemicals to Avoid.  And while many Kind bars have actual, in our opinion, “healthy” ingredients, avoiding the ones with processed soy like Soy Protein Isolate is good advise.  Consumer Reports recently reviewed snack bars – see here for their take on “healthy,” choices.

Make Your Own

When in doubt, make your own! Granola bars are easy to make and can taste delicious as you control 100% what goes into them.  Or simply grabbing nuts & fruit while on the go to energize your day.

Here are some great recipes to try: