What makes a healthy snack? Experts explain why some of the FDA’s labeling regulations are outdated and unhelpful

By Markham Heid
April 16, 2015

So this is a little nuts: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has asked the makers of KIND bars to remove the word "healthy" and the symbol "+" from the packages of four of its products. (Specifically, Kind Plus Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate + Protein, Kind Plus Dark Chocolate Cherry Cashew + Antioxidants, Kind Fruit & Nut Almond & Apricot, and Kind Fruit & Nut Almond & Coconut.) But health experts say aspects of the FDA's label regulations-especially concerning fat-are "misguided" and "outdated."

It would take about 3,500 words to describe all the ins and outs of the FDA's gripe with KIND's labels. (The FDA's warning letter to KIND was about that long.) But in simple terms, the federal regulators say that some of KIND's products contain too much fat to be labeled "healthy." Also, the use of the "+" symbol is restricted to foods that contain specific levels of certain vitamins and nutrients-levels KIND doesn't always meet.

To give the FDA a little credit, no one is saying KIND bars are the end-all-be-all of health foods. "I wouldn't tell someone to eat a KIND bar instead of an apple," says Alexandra Caspero, R.D. "They do contain some sugar."

But the FDA doesn't mention sugar in its letter. Instead, they take issue with KIND's fat content, most of which comes from nuts. And that's actually unfortunate, says Walter Willett, M.D., chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Over the last few decades, we've collected a lot of data that show nuts are one of the healthiest things you can eat," Willett says. (And he would know; he's authored a study linking nut consumption to lower mortality.)

Willett says nuts contain monounsaturated fat-a healthy type that lowers your levels of bad LDL cholesterol and reduces your risk for heart disease. But the FDA doesn't do a great job of differentiating between fats when it comes to its label rules.

"The FDA are using guidelines that are way out of date and that limit what can be called healthy," Willett says. "This will lead people to make incorrect conclusions, which is unfortunate."

Caspero adds, "The FDA considers a lot of low-fat foods to be ‘healthy,' even if they offer nothing of nutritional value." She says federal food regulators also tend to focus on specific food components-like fat or sodium-instead of the whole food, which can be misleading. "Salmon and avocados are high in fat, but no one would say they're unhealthy," she says, almost restating the sentiments of KIND's CEO.

While downing a box of KIND bars every day probably isn't ideal, don't let the FDA's qualms put you off. "If I'm looking at grab-and-go snack options, I think KIND bars are great," Caspero says. (And so are these 40 Crunchy and Creamy Healthy Snacks Under 200 Calories.)