If you're deciding between a candy bar and a fruit-and-nut bar, and health is top of mind, the best choice seems obvious.
But when it comes to companies actually labeling their products "healthy," the Food and Drug Administration is showing it won't pull any punches. In a letter dated March 17 that was released this week, the agency called out the snack food company Kind for violating labeling rules by putting the word "healthy" on the packaging for some of its bars.
It turns out the FDA has a very specific definition of "healthy" food and a list of requirements that products must meet to earn the right to put that loaded word on the label. For one, the product has to contain 1 gram or less of saturated fat.
According to the letter, there were four flavors of Kind bar that were not up to snuff when the agency reviewed them in August 2014. For example, the Kind Fruit & Nut Almond & Coconut product contained 5 grams of saturated fat per 40 grams of the food.
As William Correll, the director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and author of the letter, writes, "None of your products listed above meet the requirements for use of the nutrient content claim 'healthy,' even though the Kind label reads 'Healthy and tasty, convenient and wholesome.' "
The FDA takes issue with many other aspects of the labels, including Kind's use of the plus sign on some of its products, which it uses to designate bars with extra antioxidants, fiber or protein.
Technically, to bear the symbol or word "plus," the bar has to contain 10 percent more of the nutrients than a bar the FDA has deemed representative of the snack bar category.
So is Kind actually misleading consumers about the healthfulness of its products?
As The Salt has reported, the latest research suggests saturated fat may not be the nutritional villain it has been made out to be. High-fat nuts, in particular, may help control our appetites, to keep weight down.
Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard University, says it's not as though Kind's mislabeling is egregious. "You wouldn't want a product that's loaded with mostly palm oil and other sources of saturated fat [to be labeled healthy]," he says.
Willett has researched how nuts contribute to human health, and he tells The Salt that they reduce LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and lower rates of heart disease and mortality. "They're probably one of the healthiest choices you can make in a diet," he says.
Willett says that the FDA's letter to Kind is based on outdated guidelines, at least when it comes to nuts. The government updates its Dietary Guidelines for Americans every five years, and the latest report from the advisory committee for those guidelines does indeed point to research supporting the inclusion of nuts in a healthful diet.
But the FDA seems to be lagging, in part because the agency doesn't revise its guidelines as frequently. "I think there's wide consensus that nuts are a healthy food," Willett says.
The warning letter comes during a growth spurt for Kind, which has tripled its sales over the past two years. According to Joe Cohen, senior vice president of communications, the company didn't know that the word "healthy" came with a specific set of rules and guidelines. The word went on the packaging in 2004 and it's been there ever since.
The company responded to the FDA's letter on its website, saying that it will be changing the labels on the four flavors that Correll disputed. It says it is also reviewing its entire line to make sure labels on other products comply with FDA rules.
"Nuts, key ingredients in many of our snacks and one of the things that make fans love our bars, contain nutritious fats that exceed the amount allowed under the FDA's standard," Cohen writes in an email to NPR.
He didn't address the plus sign directly, except to say that the company is "fully committed to working alongside the FDA, and we're moving quickly to comply with its request."