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Calling Food ‘Healthy’ Doesn’t Really Mean Anything


Simply put, “healthy” is hard, and having one fixed definition for all foods is inaccurate. As it stands, a food company can simply fortify its foods and be deemed “healthy.”

As Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center Director David Katz tells Popular Science, under a broad definition, a fortified cereal that “provides 100 percent of the [recommended daily amount] for many nutrients…could wind up outscoring broccoli, or blueberries, or wild salmon, or walnuts. That just doesn’t make sense.”

However, many nutrition scholars like Katz and Crawford see it being possible to make stratified guidelines for a “healthy” label that score types of food differently.

That may end up being the route that the FDA takes, but at the moment, it’s taking comments from interested parties who want to advise on how to define “healthy.” During this period, as Katz contends, “we can expect the beef industry to make the case that all meat should be called ‘healthy,’…perhaps the soda companies will argue that at least diet soda should be ‘healthy.’” Looking to past comment periods, a significant 41 percent of the unique comments submitted on whether or not the FDA should include added sugars on nutrition labels, represented food industry interests.

But if the word of the nutrition scholars that Popular Science has spoken to is any indication, researchers will be debating for an evidence-based conclusion, and they hope others will do the same. A sizable body of research on food marketing points to us implicitly trusting labels with positive connotations, like natural, organic, hormone-free, and even just the color green, as signifiers of food’s nutritional value–regardless of such terms’ scientific merit. Healthy not only comes with marketing and cultural value, but plenty of potential for pseudoscientific abuse.

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