Fig Bar

Healthy “Energy” Bars and Unhealthy Whole Milk

This afternoon at FNCE, Hope Warshaw will be moderating a wide-ranging conversation with David Kessler. He is the FDA commissioner who oversaw the requirement to put Nutrition Facts labels on food back in 1994. That’s when many ideas took shape in the popular imagination about what a healthy food is. Now is a good time to look back, because we are presently living with the sequel. Two weeks ago, FDA proposed new rules for foods that can be called healthy. This means that some energy bars will make the grade, while fresh, whole milk goes into the unhealthy bin.

For that matter, two percent milk doesn’t make the grade either. Too much saturated fat. We’re living with a hangover from the 1990s, when people thought low-fat everything was healthy and butterfat was verboten.

Even though it’s pretty clear that saturated dairy fat is not problematic, the advice to avoid it lives on.

Better Than Labeling Anarchy

Writing in Stat, Marion Nestle tells us:

“The proposed rules are a lot better than the labeling anarchy that currently exists. But here’s my bottom line: health claims are not about health. They are about selling food products.”

To the extent that food marketing contributes to obesity, we suspect that telling consumers “this is healthy, eat more of it” will not lead to better population health. Rather, it will simply add to the problem of pushing people to consume ever greater quantities of food on more and more occasions.

As we eat more, we enjoy less. That’s because in this scheme, health, not pleasure, is the implicit point of eating.

Healthy or Not?

FDA has avoided defining unhealthy foods. Putting a hazard label on foods would likely be a tough sell. So instead, the designation is implicit. Two percent and whole milk just doesn’t make the grade to be healthy.

Meanwhile, marketers of healthy-ish snack food will have a new template for selling us more stuff to eat than we ever knew we needed. We will be shocked if this brings us better health.

Health claims on food are for marketing. Not for better health oucomes.

Click here for Nestle’s commentary on the proposed rules for claims that a food is healthy, and here for a historian’s perspective.

Fig Bar, photograph by Ted Kyle

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October 9, 2022

4 Responses to “Healthy “Energy” Bars and Unhealthy Whole Milk”

  1. October 09, 2022 at 8:42 am, John DiTraglia said:

    Food labeling is liable to all the follies of nutrition science that prevails. But the presumption that being enticed to eat more and too much is the problem is also problematical because it infers that that is what is wrong with people who are obese.

  2. October 12, 2022 at 1:40 pm, Connie Diekman said:


    So fun to have seen you at FNCE. I know we have discussed this before but the body of evidence does still clearly show that saturated fats are connected to an increased risk of CVD. Clearly amount is important but when it comes to which fats to choose, SAFA’s should make up the smallest % of intake.

    • October 13, 2022 at 5:08 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Connie. While it’s true that there are good reasons to believe saturated fat in isolation confers some theoretical health risk, it’s also pretty clear that whole fat dairy foods do not and in fact may be beneficial. This recent analysis is helpful, as well as this recent commentary. So, I would agree that it’s not a good idea to drink a glass of saturated fat. But a glass of whole milk is something I enjoy and can reasonably expect will contribute to my health.