What is "Healthy?"

It’s a story that’s made for a lot of great headlines: almonds and avocados are “unhealthy,” so much so that companies like Kind, which makes fruit and nut bars, have been warned by the Food and Drug Administration not to pretend otherwise. How could it be that fruit and nuts – a few of the “superfoods” people have been increasingly gravitating toward in hopes of slimmer waists and prolonged life – are bad for you? The more important question, I think, is, “says who?”

In truth, it’s not that foods like almonds and avocados are “bad.” In fact it’s the lack of appropriate judgment of food at all that is one of the biggest problems with regulating food. Almonds and avocados are simply fatty, and since 1994, fatty = bad, according to the FDA. A lot of research since then has suggested that there is such a thing as a “healthy fat,” and that sugar – something the FDA pays much less attention to – is likely more detrimental to health than fatty fruits and nuts. So the announcement today from the FDA that it is thinking about changing the definition of “healthy” is great news, right? It could be, eventually. First the FDA will ask for comments from experts and the public, then it will propose a rule change, then people will be able to comment on the new proposed rule, a final rule will be announced, and then food manufacturers will have a certain period of time to adjust before it is widely implemented. So Pop-Tarts will probably still “officially” be healthier than almonds for a few years.

It’s really the reason that this rule change is even being considered that interests me the most. It’s not solely because the FDA realized the error of its ways and wants to make it up to avocado lovers. It’s because Kind sued.

“We very much hope the FDA will change the definition of healthy, so that you don’t end up in a silly situation where a toaster pastry or sugary cereal can be considered healthy and a piece of salmon or bunch of almonds cannot,” Kind CEO Daniel Lubetzky told the Wall Street Journal.

I very much hope so too, but I also wonder whether this is the best way to be making decisions about food regulation. I’m not naive; I know that much of our country’s legislation and regulation come out of lawsuits and lobbying. When it comes to health, though, and particularly what we eat, which is so personal and also in many ways political, a part of me hopes we can figure out a way to rely more on science than money. Man, I guess that time off has made me a little mushy. Better watch an episode of House of Cards…