An employee stocks yogurt for sale on the opening day of the 365 by Whole Foods Market store in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Wednesday, May 25, 2016
Good to go: health claims made for a range of convenience foods have created confusion among consumers © Bloomberg

Back in 2015 Daniel Lubetzky, the founder of start-up snacking bar company Kind, received an uncomfortable letter from the US Food and Drug Administration. Several flavours of Mr Lubetzky’s snack bars should not be labelled “healthy”, it read, as the fat content exceeded the threshold admitted under the FDA’s definition.

Kind made adjustments by removing and amending certain nutrient claims, which the agency acknowledged earlier this year as being satisfactory.

But in a twist to the tale, the FDA then said that it was all right for Kind to use the word “healthy” on its packages to describe its corporate philosophy, and also decided to reconsider its own definition of “healthy”, something it had not done for about two decades.

Its existing parameters — as Kind pointed out — meant that foods containing ingredients such as nuts, avocado and salmon could not be considered healthy, while highly-processed products like low-fat breakfast sandwiches (such as Kellogg’s Pop Tarts) could.

This episode highlights the difficulty in even defining terms such as healthy. Back in the 1990s, the world of healthy eating was obsessed with fat reduction, which spawned an industry of low-fat processed ready meals and snacks.

Now this focus has moved on to the contribution wholesome foods make to a healthy diet, including the likes of nuts, which may have relatively high levels of saturated fat but are nutrient-dense and satiating for longer than processed foods.

Products perceived as healthy, such as snacking bars and yoghurts, are key sources of revenue growth in a stagnating market for food and beverage companies, so vague terms such as “healthy” become increasingly important for consumers and as marketing claims. But with little time to study labels closely, they can be confusing unless definitions are clearly based on the latest science.

The FDA’s decision to review its definition of what constitutes healthy food is an acknowledgment of its increasing importance on food and drink labels.

Kind has pointed out the FDA’s existing definition does not even gel with the most recent federal guidelines for healthy eating, published earlier this year, which advocates the intake of nuts, salmon, avocado and other forms of calorific but nutrient-dense items.

Kind submitted a citizen’s petition urging the redefinition of “healthy”, which partly led to the FDA’s decision.

Douglas Balentine, a director at the office of nutrition and food labelling at the FDA’s centre for food safety and applied nutrition, wrote in a blog post in September: “Even for the well informed, choosing what to buy is challenging, especially if you want to choose a healthy diet for you and your families.

“We know that many consumers use the Nutrition Facts label, especially when they are buying a food for the first time. Often, there are also a lot of other terms of food packages such as ‘healthy’, ‘low in fat’ or ‘good source’.

“We also know that many just don’t have the time to consider the details of nutrition information on every package they purchase. In fact, most purchase decisions are made quickly, within three to five seconds.”

There are increasing amounts of information for consumers to absorb while making such fast decisions, as the debate over health and nutrition — fuelled by citizens themselves on social media — has spread to encompass matters such as ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and a demand for greater transparency over the supply chain.

There is a lot at stake for the industry. As consumers become more knowledgeable, “Big Food” and “Big Soda” companies — led by industry associations such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association — have been spending hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying against labelling certain foods, such as GMO ingredients, and policies to reduce sugar consumption such as through the introduction of taxes.

The US Congress agreed earlier this year to introduce GMO labelling in a compromise that the industry hailed as a win and activists criticised.

The bill does not insist on package labelling, but instead allows companies to list a website, or matrix barcode, to guide consumers to more information online.

But while the industry undoubtedly has plenty of lobbying muscle, the growing influence of consumer campaigners cannot be ignored and social media has given them a louder voice in the debate over the food industry.

This consumer clout was evident in the debate over on-package labelling of GMO ingredients, during which companies such as Campbell Soup and Mars independently concluded they would split from the collective industry voice and declared they would provide on-package labelling despite it not being required by law.

The process of amending the term “healthy” has just started and is likely to take some time. David Katz, director at the Yale University Prevention Research Center and an adviser to Kind, has said it is not enough for the FDA to include nuts and seeds in its definition of “healthy”.

He says the regulator needs to also rethink the fact its definition applies to low-fat junk foods and does not address added sugar. In the meantime he has urged consumers to take matters into their own hands by cultivating their own “food label literacy”.

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