An Exploration of Healthy: What the FDA’s Latest Health Label Really Means

Late last year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it will change how it defines the term healthy. For many of us, this decision may seem long overdue.

The current criteria, which were created more than 20 years ago, targeted fat – determining any snack with more than three grams of fat could not be labeled “healthy.”

This rationale shaped a generation of food manufacturing dedicated to low- and non-fat foods, which many scientists now believe may have caused more harm than good.

HERE’S WHAT THE FDA GOT WRONG ABOUT HEALTH FOOD.
When it comes to fat, it’s about quality, not quantity.

A diet high in saturated fat – the kind found in butter and lard – is linked to heart disease; the American Heart Association recommends no more than 13 grams of these per day. However, the FDA’s guidelines don’t differentiate between these and so-called “healthy fats.”

Mono- and polyunsaturated fats (omega-3s), which occur naturally in foods like nuts, avocados and salmon, are essential nutrients, says registered dietitian and exercise physiologist Jackie Sharp. “They help regulate immune function and hormone balance, they’re a vital source of energy, and they’re great for your skin and hair. Not to mention you need them to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.”

The most important distinction: These fats actually decrease your risk of heart disease.

Yet under the FDA’s current guidelines, none of these foods can be labeled healthy. Meanwhile, as Kind pointed out in a debacle with the FDA, heavily processed fat-free pudding and sugar-laden cereals can and often are labeled as such.

And speaking of sugar…

Sugar is really bad for you. Possibly worse than fat.

Rates of diabetes, obesity and heart disease have risen, even as people consume less fat. Scientists are now pointing to sugar, which produces addictive effects similar to that of cocaine.

Studies show that sugar alone increases LDL (bad cholesterol) and over the course of a 15-year study led by doctors from Harvard and the CDC, participants’ odds of dying from heart disease rose in tandem with the percentage of sugar in their diet – regardless of age, sex, physical activity level and body-mass index.

According to researchers at the University of North Carolina, 68 percent of processed food sold in American grocery stores includes some form of added sugar. And because the FDA did not count sugar when defining what’s “healthy,” many of these items are packaged and positioned as health foods. Common items include salad dressing, bread, granola bars and flavored yogurt – one serving of Chobani raspberry yogurt contains 16 grams. (By comparison, the American Heart Association recommends women consume no more than 25 grams per day.) Most people have more than that before lunch.

HERE’S WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW WHEN YOU SET OUT TO BUY HEALTHY FOOD.
Labels are often purposely misleading.

For decades, the FDA did not allow health claims to appear on food packaging. That changed when Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. Ever since, food manufacturers have gotten creative in finding loopholes or averting (sometimes in dubious ways) the requirements so they can market their products as “healthy.”

The synonyms for sugar seem to be endless. In the last few years, “evaporated cane juice” began appearing on food labels. In 2016, the FDA finally called out food manufacturers for using the term to deliberately conceal the fact that the ingredient is basically just sugar.

“They’re very good at what they do,” says Sharp.

The new nutrition labels are supposed to also address the issue of added sugars. In addition to ingredients like cane juice, high fructose corn syrup and juice concentrate (also just sugar), she adds that if a company is selling a product, say a granola bar, any ingredients used as sweeteners – whether dates, agave or honey – should count toward added sugars.

“We don’t know what marketing companies might come up to elude this, but in an ideal world this is how it would look.”

More recently, coconut oil has been hailed for being a weight-loss and health supplement, with bloggers boasting the benefits of adding it to smoothies and their daily coffees. While it may have some benefits, manufacturers twisted research findings. In reality, coconut oil is about 90 percent saturated fat – that’s a greater percentage than both butter and lard.

“It’s fine to have coconut oil,” says Sharp. “It’s also fine to have butter…but in moderation.” She recommends limiting saturated fat to no more than 13 grams a day, the standard set by the American Heart Association. That is equivalent to roughly one tablespoon of coconut oil.

“Most people get confused and frustrated, so they listen to what’s on trend,” says Sharp. “However, what’s on trend is often not based in science. The more clear that [labels] are, the better a consumer can make an informed decision.”

Look for what food does have, rather than what it doesn’t.

Survey data from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) indicates that, when determining whether a food is healthy, one-third of shoppers look for what a food doesn’t contain, rather than what it does contain.

Jackie Sharp stresses the opposite approach: Focus on what a food can offer you – specifically, how much whole grain, fiber, lean protein and vitamins it contains. These are the building blocks our bodies need to function.

Sharp, who was also a recipe developer for Disney employees, says she uses mashed bananas and frozen blueberries to replace much of the table sugar in muffins, for example, that way she’s packing vitamins and fiber into a dish that otherwise wouldn’t have any.

“It’s all about getting as many nutrients into the foods we eat,” says Sharp.

To do that, David Agus, professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern California and head of the Center for Applied Molecular Medicine, suggests you ask one simple question: What fruits and vegetables just came in today?

“The answer to that single query can result in your getting the most-nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables available to you.”

By the time produce reaches your local supermarket, he explains, it doesn’t contain nearly the same volume of nutrients as when it is picked. Fruits and vegetables begin to degrade from the moment they come off the vine, and if they are picked before they’re ripe, which many of them are to help them endure the long shipment, they never develop a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals to begin with.

“In addition,” he notes. “During the long haul from farm to fork, fresh fruits and vegetables are exposed to lots of heat and light, which also degrade delicate vitamins such as C and the B vitamin, Thiamin.”

If nothing looks good and nothing came in recently, Agus recommends opting for frozen. “Fruits and vegetables chosen for freezing tend to be processed at their peak ripeness, a time when they are most nutrient-packed.”

Food labels only go so far.

While the FDA’s new definition of healthy demonstrates a step in the right direction, we can’t rely on marketing labels to tell us whether food is good is for us. Nutrition science has changed and evolved significantly over the years, but there’s likely a lot that we still don’t know.

Our best bet is to be savvy shoppers: Read ingredients closely; eat fresh, whole foods; and try to choose food that gives our bodies what they need.


Christina Garofalo is an essayist and journalist whose work spans food, travel and femme culture. Her work has appeared in Paste, First We Feast and Robb Report, and she runs the blog Adventures in Frugal. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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