When the FDA published its proposed rule defining “healthy” last week, there was a lot to digest — literally.
The 105-page document was published as many people who had been anxiously awaiting it assembled in Washington, D.C., for the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health.
The proposed measure was seven years in the making. In 2015, the FDA asked Kind to remove the “healthy” claim from its labels because of fat content — which came from the nuts in the company’s bars. The company formally petitioned for an update to its regulations.
The snacking brand, which is now owned by Mars, was gratified to see the new definition, Daniel Lubetzky, Kind’s founder and chief impact officer, said in a written statement. And while it’s still a proposed rule, Kind got what it wanted.
"The proposed rule is a win for public health — and that's a win for all of us," Kristin Rubin, Kind’s head of nutrition, said in a written statement. "The proposed definition is consistent with our past position, and we are energized to continue to advocate for nutrition education, transparency and making nutrition as convenient as possible."
The proposed rule doesn’t apply a single description to what is a “healthy” food, for the most part. That depends on what the product is, how much of a serving it has of one of the key food groups — fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy or protein — as identified by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and whether it exceeds limits on salt, added sugars and saturated fats, which are different for varied types of food products.
Raw, whole fruits and vegetables and water are automatically classified as “healthy.” The proposed rule also seeks to classify natural nutrient-dense items as “healthy,” even though they don’t necessarily meet other nutrient guidelines, including skim and fat-free dairy products, eggs and seeds and nuts.
While many people have not done a detailed parsing of the proposed rule yet, Amaru Sánchez, an associate at law firm Wiley Rein, has started to go through it. In an email, he said he’s found a couple of places where terminology needs to be explicitly defined.
“Nutrient density” is not well defined, and neither are “vegetables.” After all, many of the things a consumer thinks of as vegetables, including bell peppers and tomatoes, actually fit the botanical definitions of fruits. It’s also unclear what the difference is between vegetables and “high protein foods,” considering beans and peas can be considered both.
The rule, he wrote, also needs to figure out exactly how nuts, which can be naturally high in saturated fats, can fit into the “healthy” definition. The fats naturally occurring in nuts appear on the Nutrition Facts panel as a percentage of a person’s recommended daily intake, which the rest of the “healthy” definition is also built around.
The California Walnut Board and Commission said in a statement it was glad to see the FDA is including nuts as “healthy” foods.
“[The] announcement affirms the decades of nutrition research that reinforce the important contribution of walnuts in a healthy lifestyle, providing additional reason to move walnuts beyond the baking aisle and highlight them among other healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables," Robert Verloop, its executive director and CEO, said in the statement.
Emily Metz, president and CEO of the American Egg Board, said in a statement that including eggs as “healthy” foods “is more good news for egg lovers as it affirms the science showing that eggs are an all-around nutrient powerhouse, supplying nutrients such as choline, vitamin D, and essential fatty acids that are necessary for healthy living.”
Despite what some industry groups saw as good news in the proposed rule, Sánchez notices that the way it is written seems to marginalize food tech companies. He noted there was no mention of mycoproteins or cell-cultivated meat.
“Apart from soy and peas, there is no recognition of the various types of alternative proteins currently in the market as well as soon to be in the market,” Sánchez wrote. “I expect to see a lot of comments from food tech companies regarding their exclusion and/or lack of recognition as an important source of nutrient-dense food.”
Comments can be made on the proposed rule until Dec. 28.