Do you seek out products with a “natural” claim, even if they cost more, because you think they’re better for you? What about foods that identify themselves as “healthy”? Here’s what to know about these labels, since they probably don’t mean what you think they mean (if they mean anything at all).
A “healthy” debate
For most foods, the FDA defines “healthy” as having no more than 3 grams of total fat and 1 gram of saturated fat per serving. Plus they must meet certain cholesterol and sodium limits and have at least 10 percent of the Daily Value of at least one “desirable” nutrient (vitamin A or C, calcium, iron, fiber, or protein).
As critics point out, this definition is outdated. For one, it was created more than 20 years ago, when “low-fat” was considered the healthiest way to eat and when there was no recognition of “good” fats, as found in nuts, avocados, olive oil, seeds, and fish. None of these foods meet the legal definition of healthy, though indeed they are just that. Also, for example, the definition does not take into account added sugars, which are now recognized as detrimental to health. Thus, low-fat sugary foods, including many highly sweetened cereals, can be labeled “healthy,” though they are not.
To avoid violating the legal definition of “healthy,” many companies substitute words with similar appeal, such as “wholesome” and “nutritious,” though these are not regulated at all. Other companies—including the makers of KIND bars—have simply defied the FDA, using the word “healthy” (or a variation) without adhering to the government definition, resulting in warning letters in some cases. KIND bars do have healthy attributes because they contain nuts and seeds (which technically disqualifies them from calling themselves “healthy,” since these ingredients increase the fat content), but some also have moderate amounts of added sugar (which rightly should prevent them from using the label).
In May 2016, the FDA reversed its position against KIND, allowing the company to keep the word “healthy” on the wrappers as long as no nutrient content claims are also made. This decision was made for just this case, though the FDA also stated that it will consider reevaluating regulations regarding the term “healthy” more broadly.
In a December 2015 survey of 1,005 people by Consumer Reports, 62 percent said they buy products labeled “natural,” usually thinking that means they have no artificial ingredients, pesticides, growth hormones, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The term “natural,” however, is defined only for meat, poultry, and processed egg products (like liquid eggs), which fall under the jurisdiction of the USDA, as having no artificial ingredients, added colors, or chemical preservatives and being only minimally processed (meaning processed in ways that don’t fundamentally alter them, whatever that means). Currently, there is no definition of “natural” for foods regulated by the FDA, which comprise about 80 percent of products in the supermarket.
Over the past few years, dozens of lawsuits have been filed against major food companies, including PepsiCo, Campbell Soup, and Cargill, charging that their use of the term “natural” constitutes deceptive marketing practices. After all, many products labeled “natural” contain lab-produced ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup, cellulose powder, xanthan gum, 4-methylimidazole, maltodextrin, citric acid, and sodium phosphate, along with GMOs.
After years of glaring inattention, the FDA has taken its first steps toward a uniform definition of “natural,” prompted by requests from organizations seemingly at odds with one another. The nonprofit Consumers Union, for instance, wants to see the term banned altogether, while the Grocery Manufacturers Association, an industry trade group, wants regulations allowing the use of GMOs in foods labeled “natural.” The FDA is currently reviewing thousands of public comments and will then, it’s hoped, come up with a meaningful definition.
BOTTOM LINE: Whether a food is touted as healthy, natural, wholesome, nutritious—or artisanal or clean (two recently trending terms)—we recommend getting a real look at what’s inside the package by reading the ingredients list and nutrition facts label.