Still Life With Herring, Wine, And Bread

Finding Healthy Food: Michelangelo and the FDA

Michelangelo Shopping List 1518One fine day in 1518, Michelangelo sent out for groceries: fish, bread, fennel soup, herring, anchovies, and wine. His servant was illiterate, so he illustrated the shopping list. It’s lovely documentation for some of the ingredients in a healthful Mediterranean diet.

It looks so easy and beautiful.

FDA Guidance for a Healthy Shopping List

FDA’s guidance on healthy food is a bit different and it’s in flux. The agency is trying to revise guidance for claiming that a food is healthy. The current rules dates back 23 years. Back then, people were scarfing down “healthy” low-fat Snackwell cookies, Olestra potato chips, and McLean burgers fortified with seaweed extract.

Things have changed a bit since then.

FDA hosted a full day hearing last week for public comments about a new definition of foods that might be called “healthy.”

Not an Easy Task

Defining healthy food seems like an easy task. Justin Mervis, a senior VP and general counsel at Kind Snacks, told FDA:

It’s simply just a signal.  It’s a signal that this food meets a set of criteria. They are foods generally recognized as good for you. It doesn’t have much of the bad stuff.

Naturally, they want rules that will give them a reliable marketing tool. They’re in the business of selling healthy snacks. FDA’s Douglas Ballentine expressed the hope that healthy could be a term to help people make good choices, consistent with dietary guidelines.

But speaking for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, senior director Pepin Tuma told FDA that healthy means something different to everyone. The Academy could not find a consensus definition that holds up to scrutiny.

Lindsay Moyer of the Center for Science in the Public Interest summarized by saying:

A healthy label should not be a marketing tool that helps marginally better processed food compete with truly healthy foods like fruits and vegetables.

And that leaves FDA with a dilemma. Health claims promote healthy sales more than human health.

The truth is that very few foods – if any – are truly absolutely healthy by themselves.Too​ much of a good thing is a bad thing. Good health comes from a healthy dietary pattern, based on all the foods a person eats.

A Mediterranean diet, such as Michelangelo might have eaten, is a well-understood healthy diet. Michelangelo lived to be 88.

Click here for more on Michelangelo’s shopping list. Click herehere, and here for more on the FDA hearing about healthy food claims.

Still Life With Herring, Wine, And Bread; painting by Pieter Claesz / WikiArt

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March 16, 2017