New FDA labeling on "healthy" food is misleading: expert

“It doesn't help the average consumer," says U of M Professor Joanne Slavin
Nutrition Labels
The FDA is proposing a new labeling system that intends to inform buyers of what is "healthy". But a nutrition specialist with the University of Minnesota says it is unnecessary and misleading. Photo credit (Getty Images / oatawa)

Claims like “healthy” on food labels can provide information to consumers to help them identify healthier food choices at a quick glance. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, foods must meet specific nutrient-related criteria to use the nutrient content claim “healthy.”

The FDA has begun a process to update the "healthy" claim for food labeling to be consistent with current nutrition science and federal dietary guidance. It’s the first major change to what they define as healthy since 1994.

By taking a more holistic look at food, instead of the sometimes confusing information regarding the amount of vitamins, minerals and nutrients, the FDA is hoping to provide information that is more beneficial to buyers in the grocery aisle.

The vast majority of Americans, up to 80%, are not eating enough fruits and vegetables and have turned to mostly packaged and processed foods, something some food experts and dieticians are saying can’t be fixed by labeling.

Joanne Slavin is a professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota. She teaches Advanced Human Nutrition and she says the foods most affected by the proposed labeling are those packaged food and processed foods, and that it is putting a lot of effort into something that isn't going to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables.

“I've been in the food business my whole life and I was on the dietary guidelines in 2010,” explains Slavin. “So when I think of my history and nutrition, what's made me a skeptic is all the information that people can use is already on the label of packaged foods. It's already there. So moving it to the front and putting a stop light on it is really arrogant and stupid in my opinion.”

Speaking to WCCO Radio’s Chad Hartman Show, Slavin says this effort won’t help people make better choices with food.

“I just don't see that, that it's worth what they offered,” Slavin says. “I know we just had the White House Conference (on Hunger, Nutrition and Health), and people feel like they have to do something. Let's make foods healthier. But what do people eat? What makes the food choices that they make? The first thing is that it has to taste good. How much does it cost? What are my cultural things? And we already give so much information on sodium, saturated fat, blah, blah, blah. It's already on the label and it's a huge bureaucratic effort for small manufacturers. It's really not fair to judge and say at this level, this food is unhealthy. We know that's not true. It has to fit into the overall diet.”

Slavin goes on to say the Federal Government has done some good work with food and food insecurity since first launching dietary guidelines in the 1960s, especially around providing school lunches to students who normally weren’t getting good enough meals. However, she says the 1980 FDA food guidelines put us on the wrong track.

“The dietary guidelines in 1980, kind of saying, these are good foods and these are bad foods. And what do we base it on? Sodium, added sugar, saturated fat,” Slavin says. “Well, that’s every food, or certain foods.
What's butter? It's all saturated fat.”

Slavin says that saying something is “healthy” on any one food package is misleading.

“What's the point of it? It's judgmental stuff, of people sitting in some bureaucratic office doing some kind of calculation,” she says. “It doesn't help the average consumer. They need access to food, they need access to clean water and a connection with their food, and we forget food is life. It's all of our celebrations and why always make it punitive and say this is healthy, this isn't”

Slavin says this is one more reason food manufacturers will be beat up by regulations. She says they follow what the FDA says to do, such as adding fiber, removing sugar or saturated fats. But Slavin says that doesn't necessarily make food healthier.

“It's just every time, we kind of micromanage the diet and say this is healthy, this isn't. And we've had this along the way,” Slavin explained to WCCO. “The FDA, since the dietary guidelines have been on, they have always had to make a healthy claim. You have to have this, you have to have that. But all of that information is already on the nutrition facts panel. It's only on processed foods anyway, so you go to the grocery store and you go and buy fruits and vegetables and meats. None of that information is available to you. And a lot of consumers, to say this is healthy and this isn't, it's just misleading.”

Slavin says the U.S. system for labeling foods is not followed in other countries, and those countries do not have the same issues we have with obesity. She points to some common sense when it comes to food choices.

“I did a little sabbatical over in Switzerland, but the Kit Kat bar, they don't have any labels over there,” she says. “And the people said, ‘why would we label it, it's candy, we know it has sugar and fat in it. Why do we need a nutrition label?’ Well, in this country, we need a nutrition label. And there's already a ton of information on it and it's great for full disclosure. I love it. You know, as a dietician, everything is on the package already. I don't need to move it in the front and tell you it's good or bad. If you want that information, it's already there.”

One of the major complaints from U.S. consumers is the cost of food that is healthier, especially since inflation has driven up food costs significantly in the last year. It costs more to eat fresh fruits and vegetables compared to many packaged foods.

Slavin says the simple answer is moderation and variety. Eating less and mixing in multiple foods.

“That's the secret to good nutrition,” she says. “There's lots of ways to get there. So we have my plate with fruits, vegetables, protein group, and the dairy group to get vitamins, vitamin D, calcium. Then we have the grain group and you can put that together so many different ways and at very low cost if you have the ability to do that.”

Slavin also says save some costs by looking for frozen vegetable and fruit, which get overlooked too often.

“A lot of (frozen) vegetables and fruit are higher in nutrition,” Slavin says. “So I think that's my frustration, you know, generic cereal with milk, eggs, as costs go up, it's a huge problem. It's hard to get people working in plants and producing the food, and we've been so spoiled that we don't appreciate it. So we bash farmers, food producers and we put in more regulations, which just isn't fair to the poor working person in this country. And we say we care about them, but we really don't enough.”

Click here to read the new FDA guidelines. 

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