Angels and Sirens

An Impossible Quest: Objectively Healthy Food

Has the FDA bitten off more than it can chew? Two presidents ago, back in 2016, the FDA told us the agency had begun work to “redefine the term ‘healthy’” for food labels. Good luck with that is a fair summary of our reaction at the time. Seven years later, the quest to define objectively healthy food seems every bit as challenging as we expected. Food manufacturers are, to say the least, upset. The Consumer Brands Association represents all the biggies in the food industry. In comments to the FDA, this group hinted that it is ready to sue if the agency presses on with its proposed definition for healthy:

“Manufacturers have the right to label foods that are objectively ‘healthy’ as such, based on a definition of ‘healthy’ that is truthful, factual, and non-controversial. We are concerned that limiting the truthful and non-misleading use of the word ‘healthy’ in product labeling could harm both the consumer and the manufacturer.”

If you did not catch it, this is a freedom of commercial speech argument. Any guesses how the current Supreme Court might rule on that one? Yep, corporations are people too.


The real laugh line in the food marketers’ argument is the bit about “non-controversial.” Who are they kidding? Everyone is mad about FDA’s proposed definition for objectively healthy food – pickle sellers and yogurt makers alike. The simple reason is that there is no such thing. First of all, healthy is in the eye of the beholder. In Asia, white rice is at the core of a traditional, healthy diet. In the U.S., we’ve recast it as a highly refined carb that’s practically toxic.

The truth is that healthy food is not healthy simply because of what it is. Rather, it is healthy because of how it fits into the context of an overall dietary pattern. This is why chocolate might have health benefits, but certain patterns for consuming it might be very unhealthy.

Turning Food into Medicine

Trying to turn food into medicine will never work. Food is important because it is something quite different from medicine. All by itself, one single food will not cure a disease or bring a person into a better state of health. Enjoyed properly, though, it greatly enhances the quality of our lives.

So health claims on food only serve the purpose of selling more food servings. It gives us a way to rationalize consuming food that we might not otherwise buy and eat. Pressing us to consume ever greater quantities of food on more and more occasions serves a commercial interest, but it does not promote health.

In fact, it can do quite the opposite.

Click here, here, and here to read more about the FDA’s troubled quest to redefine “healthy” food.

Angels and Sirens, painting by Tsuguharu Foujita / WikiArt

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February 22, 2023

2 Responses to “An Impossible Quest: Objectively Healthy Food”

  1. February 22, 2023 at 6:59 am, Al Lewis said:

    At Quizzify, we’ve focused on defining and demonizing unhealthy foods, which turns out to be much easier than defining and touting healthy foods. Bottom line: if something is sweet and processed, it is full of added sugar and is unhealthy in large quantities for most people.

  2. February 23, 2023 at 12:43 am, Chester Draws said:

    Just slip that “in large quantities” in there and think we would not notice Al?

    What you are really saying then, is that sweet and processed food is actually healthy, at least in some circumstances?

    Because I know some very active people that eat very large amounts of “sweet and processed” foods, and are all the more healthy for it. They simply need the energy, and the fact that their muesli bar is crushed into a blob — and so “processed” – doesn’t actually make it less healthy.

    The post makes the excellent point that “healthy” depends on circumstances, and the reverse is also true. “Unhealthy” is similar. If a product in intrinsically unhealthy then we have a word poison.