No one knows what the words ‘healthy’ or ‘natural’ mean in food—including the US government

Defining your food.
Defining your food.
Image: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
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Your food may claim to be ”natural” and “healthy,” but don’t believe it. Even a granola bar can stretch the truth.

The US Food and Drug Administration is on a mission to define the two generic terms, which companies routinely print on food packaging in hopes it will entice consumers to purchase their products. The FDA for months has been working on a definition for “natural,” and on Tuesday (Sept. 27), it announced it would be tackling “healthy,” as well.

The term “natural” on food packaging is entirely unregulated by the government, which renders its use completely hollow, consumer advocacy groups say. As for “healthy,” the FDA has been using a decades-old definition that allows the term to be slapped on fat-free puddings, but not, for example, to nut-heavy bars made by companies such as Kind because of their fat content.

In April the FDA issued a warning letter to Kind brand, saying it couldn’t use the term on the label of its snack bars. The company, in turn, filed a petition (pdf) to the FDA to review its standards.

The FDA’s efforts to define “healthy” go back to 1993, when the agency published rules for how the term could be used. At the time, a product’s fat content set the standard. From a 2016 perspective, that 1993 definition is flawed in many ways. For one thing, professional opinions about “healthy fat” have changed. Trans fats are frowned upon, but mono and polyunsaturated fats are seen as useful.

Then there’s the fact that the rule didn’t address sugar at all, which highlights how the power of the food industry to set the tone of nutrition science can make defining terms like “healthy” particularly nettlesome. A blockbuster report published Sept. 12 in the Journal of the American Medical Association detailed how the sugar industry in the 1960s paid Harvard University scientists to undermine emerging evidence linking sugar to heart disease. The work of those scientists wound up shifting more attention over to fats, and was fundamental in shaping the next five decades of nutrition science.

That ultimately led to Kind filing a petition to the FDA about the rule, arguing that nuts, while fatty, are not unhealthy. The company was successful.

On Sept. 27, the FDA said it was starting the process of collecting public comments to get input on how it should define “healthy.” The response it gets will surely be an interesting hodgepodge of opinions. That’s what happened when it sought public comment for defining “natural” earlier this year. More than 5,000 comments were submitted—some were from individuals, some from advocacy organizations, and some from companies and trade groups.

Tyson Foods, for example, said it wants to limit the use of “natural” to raw agricultural commodities. It also said that food processing methods should not be a basis for determining if something is “natural.” On the other hand, the powerful Grocery Manufacturers Association (which represents the world’s largest food companies) argued in its letter “natural” should not be limited to raw agricultural ingredients. In fact, GMA is making the case that the FDA should allow some synthetic or artificial ingredients into products labeled as “natural.”

Weighing those competing interests against available science will be difficult for the FDA, especially when corporate interests are often paired with effective lobbying.

The agency has not set a specific dates for when decisions on both definitions will be released. Until that time, wading through ingredient lists will be the best way for consumers to stay vigilant and informed.