Why The FDA Action Against KIND Bars Doesn't Mean They're Unhealthy

04/14/2015 08:27 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015
KIND / Facebook

KIND Snacks, the company behind fruit, nut and grain bars (tag line: “ingredients you can see & pronounce”) have been asked by the Food and Drug Administration to strip any mention of the term “healthy” from its packaging and website, as well as the “+” symbol.

Why? It turns out that the FDA actually regulates which packaged foods get to use the word “healthy” and the symbol “+” for marketing purposes. Though these terms sound squishy in everyday use, they actually have very specific nutritional meanings when it comes to food regulation.

A letter explaining all of the FDA’s objections was posted on the agency's website Tuesday. For one, the term “healthy” means that the product has one gram or less of saturated fat, and that no more than 15 percent of the calories are from saturated fat. The FDA has identified at least four bars -- Kind Fruit & Nut Almond & Apricot, Kind Fruit & Nut Almond & Coconut, Kind Plus Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate + Protein, and Kind Plus Dark Chocolate Cherry Cashew + Antioxidants -- that contain 2.5 grams or more of saturated fat per bar.

Use of the symbol “+” for the bars Kind Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate + Protein and Kind Dark Chocolate Cherry Cashew + Antioxidants is also a violation, according to the FDA. Officially, use of the symbol “+” means that the food contains at least 10 percent more of the daily recommended intake for vitamins and minerals as compared to an appropriate reference food, or that the food is fortified with vitamins and nutrients in accordance with certain FDA policies. The KIND bars comply with neither, states the FDA letter. It also brings up concerns over claims about antioxidants, fiber, the lack of trans fat, and various ingredient mislabeling violations.

Dated Mar. 17, the letter concluded by saying that KIND snacks had 15 days to respond with a plan of action for correcting the nutrition label violations. KIND Snacks responded with a blog post on their own site the same day the letter was posted, noting that nuts were a major component of the bars in question, and stated that the nuts themselves are what exceed the FDA’s saturated fat limits, in the same way that avocados, salmon and eggs also have a lot of fat but are still considered good for you.

"Most of the fats in our bars come from nuts and are actually monounsaturated fats (good fats),” Joe Cohen, senior vice president of communications told The Huffington Post. "Nuts do contain a small amount of unsaturated fats. The saturated fats in our bars come from a mix of ingredients nuts, coconut or palm oil."

The FDA’s crackdown on KIND Bars for saturated fat is “well-intentioned but absurd,” according to Dr. Walter Willett, Chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“It’s a bit ridiculous that saturated fat from nuts should be counted against a product, because nuts are about one of the healthiest choices you could possibly make,” Willett told The Huffington Post. "This is an example of something with good intentions based on concepts that are hugely obsolete." Willett’s past research includes a study that replicated the results of past analyses that found consumption of nuts is linked to lower rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and total mortality.

But beyond the nutritional value of nuts, the concept that fat consumption is a meaningful contributor to poor health has been taken down several pegs with the recent publication of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s 2015 report, meant to advise the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services on future food policy. The recommendations, which were compiled from a committee of top nutrition experts and reflect the most up-to-date nutrition research, actually dropped previous recommendations for Americans to limit their total fat intake to 35 percent of daily calories, noted The New York Times back in February. The committee also encouraged people to eat good sources of unsaturated fat, like nuts, olive oil and fish (though it should be noted that they also advised against eating too much saturated fat and sodium). In other words, the FDA used previous DGA requirements, some of which may be outdated, in their analysis of the bars.

Willett said that the DGA report's lack of restrictions on total fat means that products like KIND Snack bars perhaps shouldn't break out fat nutrients on their labels. “Maybe on these individual foods, it’s better to get rid of the saturated fat criteria entirely,” suggested Willett. "They are made from healthy foods and [the company] should be able to say that their product is healthy.”

Despite his counter perspective, Willett sympathized with the FDA’s mandate. In addition to regulating food based on outdated nutrition information (public commentary on the advisory committee’s 2015 report is still ongoing), nutrition regulation is simply a complex task. For instance, in addition to nuts, the other snack bar ingredients that could contribute be contributing to total saturated fat are dark chocolate, coconut and palm oil. It’s tough for the FDA to parse how much saturated fat comes from nuts versus added oils, said Willett. After all, he said, “we wouldn’t want to see a product loaded up with palm oil.”

But food policy expert Marion Nestle, Ph.D. of New York University agreed with the FDA’s statement that the snack foods are too high in saturated fat and too low in natural antioxidant vitamins to warrant the company’s health claims. She also said that the amount of chocolate in KIND bars “makes them look like candy bars.”

"I recognize that the FDA’s rules appear absurd, but that’s what the FDA has had to do to prevent makers of candy-like products for making health claims for them,” Nestle wrote in an email to HuffPost. "If it were up to me, the FDA would not allow health claims on any food product, except perhaps for foods that are minimally processed, but that’s just me."

For his part, Cohen emphasized the company's positive and open relationship with the FDA, noting that in addition to the four bars the FDA called out, KIND Snacks also planned to thoroughly examine the marketing and nutrition claims of each product, in order to make sure they were compliant with the FDA’s regulations. He also brought up the company's voluntary recall of certain products over allergen concerns in 2014 after they found that a supplier had roasted some ingredients with the same equipment that had been used to roast peanuts. KIND Snacks is working with the agency to outline a timeline for the process, Cohen added.

This story was updated to add commentary from Marion Nestle.

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