Beet Chips

A New Roadmap for Marketing Healthy-ish Food

What constitutes “healthy” for a packaged food? FDA, prompted by wrangling seven years ago, is out today with a new definition that everyone can fight about. Who cares? Well, just about everyone has an opinion. But the real passion for this subject comes from people who want to sell you more units of their food, with the hope that you can never get enough. This is the new roadmap for marketing healthy-ish food.

Roadmap to better health for the population? Unlikely.

Refreshing the Definition

The whole point of this new proposed rule is to bring the definition of “healthy” food products into line with current nutrition science, especially the current edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The old rule for what’s healthy and what’s not came from a time when low-fat everything – like snack cakes – was the dietary fashion.

Now the fashion of the day holds that fat can be OK but added sugar is the bad stuff. Also, too much saturated fat and sodium is a problem for a product that wants to call itself healthy. FDA also says “a food has to contain a certain amount of a food group like fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, and dairy.”

The agency is also working on a logo that marketers might add to their product labels to signify they meet the bar set by FDA to be a healthy food. This could be a great tool for marketing healthy-ish food.

Expect Bickering

It’s not hard to guess that a few issues will pop up. First of all, everyone has different ideas about what’s healthy and what’s not. In case you missed it, there’s a raging debate about the health issues attached to saturated fats. In particular, using saturated fat as an excuse for pushing people away from whole milk isn’t holding up very well to scientific scrutiny.

But the more fundamental problem is that it might be unhelpful to try to sort individual food products into binary lots of good or bad foods – healthy or unhealthy. Context is everything. Dietary guidelines increasingly emphasize patterns of eating as being more important than individual foods. Do we really want to bicker about whether an avocado is a healthy food because of its saturated fat content?

Eat Up! It’s Healthy!

Ultimately, we come back to a conclusion that Marion Nestle articulates quite well:

“Health claims are about marketing; they are not about health. Foods are foods, not drugs. I don’t see why companies should be allowed to carry any health claims.”

Health claims on food products will not lead us to better health. It will only lead to healthier profits and a food economy buoyed by more food than we can consume in good health.

Click here, here, and here for the details from FDA on their new proposed rule. For further perspective, click here, here, and here.

Beet Chips, photograph by Ted Kyle

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September 29, 2022

4 Responses to “A New Roadmap for Marketing Healthy-ish Food”

  1. September 29, 2022 at 6:12 am, Linn Steward, RDN said:

    Having read through the FDA document in detail now a couple of times, there’s some good news and some not so good news. Food now qualifies as a component of a healthy claim. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds are among food groups which count. Nutrients to discourage – saturated fat, added sugar, sodium – can disqualify the claim if amounts are excessive. Individual products, main dishes, and meals can make claims which has implications for restaurants, institutions, and schools. The bad news is that the calculation metric is exceedingly complex and probably even more inaccessible to most consumers than than the already complex Nutrition Facts Label.

  2. September 29, 2022 at 12:11 pm, John DiTraglia said:

    Yeah let’s stop talking about it.
    It’s a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
    Everything in moderation, including moderation.

    • September 29, 2022 at 1:03 pm, Ted said:

      I agree with you, John. I even think it’s plausible that this is counter-productive.

  3. September 30, 2022 at 5:10 pm, Mary-Jo said:

    It’s mind-numbing how much time, energy, and money is put into deciding whether food is ‘healthy’ or not! Wholesome items, mainly the stuff that doesn’t come in a package with tons of plastic wrap as well as ingredients, is always a good bet. I’m stateside now and it’s dizzying how much packaged food is on the shelves!! I counted 42 varieties of crackers yesterday, which took up about 20 feet of an isle, 12 varieties of mustard taking up about 4 feet of an aisle, and a whole aisle devoted to cereal and I couldn’t even find a proper muesli product! If supermarkets would be smaller, less clogged up with tons of units of so many varieties of one type of item, less $$$$ devoted to making those tons of units, perhaps food costs would come down and people wouldn’t be overwhelmed with ridiculous labels and ‘decisions’ on what’s ‘healthy’, it would be more self-evident. Just my humble opinion.