by Marion Nestle
May 11 2016

Healthy? Natural? It’s up to the FDA.

The terms “healthy” and “natural” help to sell food products.  They are about marketing, not health.

This makes life difficult for the FDA, which has the unenviable job of defining what the terms mean on food labels.

In a victory for the maker of KIND bars, the FDA has just said that the bars can be advertised as healthy—and that the agency will be revisiting its long-standing definition of the term.  This is what that definition says now:

You may use the term “healthy” or related terms as an implied nutrient content claim on the label or in labeling of a food that is useful in creating a diet that is consistent with dietary recommendations if the food meets the conditions for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and other nutrients…In addition, the food must comply with definitions and declaration requirements for any specific NCCs [Nutrient Content Claims].

The chronology :

As reported by Food-Navigator-USA (in a remarkably thorough account of these events),

Dr. Susan Mayne, Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the FDA, said: We do not object to the specific statement that you would like to place on your bar wrappers, on the condition that there will be no other nutrition-related statement, such as express or implied nutrient content claims, on the same panel of the label…We agree with you that our regulations concerning nutrient content claims are due for a reevaluation in light of evolving nutrition research.”

What this sounds like is that FDA will be soliciting comments on the meaning of “healthy.”   It also sounds like the FDA agrees that fat is not an appropriate criterion.  But will the FDA set a limit on sugars?  KIND bars are sweetened.

This looks like the FDA will request comments as the start of its interminable rulemaking process.

In the meantime, here’s the Wall Street Journal’s video explanation of the absurdity of the current rules.


The FDA is further along in that process for “Natural.  The comment period closed and Politico Pro Morning Agriculture reports that more than 5000 came in.  These have not yet been posted, but Morning Ag has some.  It says opinions vary.  Widely.

  • FDA should prohibit using the term.
  • Acceptable post-harvest processing and production methods [including GMOs]
  • No chemicals, no additives, and no kitchen chemistry
  • Some forms of processing can be used – and indeed may be necessary.
  • ‘Natural’ means that this product contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients.

I’ve commented many times in the past on the ongoing debates about “natural.”

I repeat: When it comes to food labels, “healthy” and “natural” are marketing terms.  Their purpose is to sell food products.

Caveat emptor.

  • Emaho

    As a person with a mathematical/engineering mind, I always disliked language because it was/is so spongey with rules that have many exceptions and words with double even triple meanings. (Though to be honest, I had to work hard to get even a B and sometimes only a C in it.) I appreciate the tricky and hard task that the FDA faces. And thanks for shining a light on this.

  • I guess go with the term or word that best fits the health care consumer in the marketplace!

  • From a consumer standpoint, the easiest way to make healthy and natural decisions is to choose food without labels PERIOD! Eat an apple, potato, fish, lettuce, a homemade cookie (or a fresh one from a bakery) when you eat a treat… We need to teach kids to avoid food with labels and focus on balanced meals made of whole foods.

  • From earlier source, the FDA is making a strong effort in the next fiscal year to update food labeling. Poor food labeling is responsible for insurgencies in teen health with school vending machine. Then two our children’s health is a national concern. In order to feed the child well, it takes the teacher, the doctor, and our clergy!

  • FromPA

    Please, FDA, simply get out of the business of attempting to tell us what is bad or good. Currently, salmon cannot be labeled “healthy” whereas certain rectangular, pre-baked, convenience food toaster pastries can be. Does that make sense to anyone? The mere fact that it EVER made sense to anyone means that the FDA should not be in the business of making these decisions.

    Unless the FDA labels anything with added sugar (in all its many forms) as “unhealthy”, I can’t seem their coming up with an interpretation of “healthy” that will allow salmon or meat (or olive oil or coconut oil or avocados or any of many other items that are “high” in “fat”) as being labeled as such yet still not allow garbage like rectangular, pre-baked, convenience food toaster pastries as not also meeting that definition.

    Please, FDA, let us decide what’s healthy and what’s not, because it’s apparent you cannot.

  • Well, let’s see if the FDA does not decide and we pay taxes, why would I want a business agent or consumer conglomerate to decide who may or may not pay taxes and does not care about the importance of food labeling in the 5 food groups on the FDAs food pyramid chart?

  • Marion Wotton

    As someone trained in marketing & business growth techniques I can see where the manufacturers of products are coming from. Being able to have ‘healthy’, ‘natural’ and the like on packaging is a powerful sales tool. But as a mother, a home cook and as someone who aims to ‘cook from scratch’ as much as possible (without being a subsistence farmer), the FDA seems to be assuming the role of helicopter parent for society … and issuing edicts instead of education.

  • Karl Hess

    ban them both – natural and healthy

  • Maybe we should ban both by saying Paleolithic diet?

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