05/29/2015 05:17 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2016

A Superior Kind of Food


Within the last month, the KIND snack company, received a warning letter from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). At issue was the "healthy" claim appearing on labels of some of the company's popular snack bars.

Per the FDA, "healthy" is a nutritional-content claim that any product containing more than 1 gm of saturated fat per serving (like KIND bars) cannot meet.

Nutrition experts rightly pointed out how ridiculous this criterion is, particularly because the saturated fat in KIND bars comes largely from the nuts the bars contain (i.e., from whole-food ingredients with decided health benefits irrespective of their saturated-fat content).

The FDA focus on saturated fat is emblematic of broader unhelpful reductionism in dietary guidelines and dietary guidance today. As colleagues and I point out in a recent article on nutrition myths and healthy dietary advice, saturated fat is not the problem. Neither is any isolated food component or constituent taken out of context of the overall food.

Some foods containing saturated fats are quite healthy. Nuts are an example.

But to the extent that any good can come from a reductionist focus on food constituents, one has to question many of the constituents added to KIND bars. Certainly whole fruits and nuts are healthy foods, and the predominance of these ingredients have earned KIND bars loyal defenders against FDA judgments.

But consider all the other KIND ingredients, which are not whole foods: for instance, added micronutrients, like calcium, and added fiber (e.g., chicory root and pectin). Added calcium and fiber may sound healthy until one considers the evidence (that such additives likely result in no health benefit and may cause harm).

Then there is the refined starch (i.e., crisp rice) and added sugars (e.g., honey, glucose, and fruit juice), which in and of themselves likely have adverse implications for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

This is to say nothing of the "natural" (read as "synthesized in a laboratory") fruit flavor, the added emulsifier (i.e., soy lecithin), and--depending on the specific KIND variety--the palm kernel oil. Among other problems, this last ingredient may harm consumers through deforestation and downstream global effects (for explanation, see Chapter 30 on the interconnectedness of personal and planetary health).

The point is, KIND bars are not so kind to consumers or the environment, and they are not really healthy food. On the contrary, they are processed products. In fact they contain more processed ingredients than Nestlé's Chunky candy bars (which I don't think most nutrition experts would argue are "healthy" despite the fruit and nuts they contain). In many ways, KIND bars are to fruits and nuts what modern Jello pudding is to traditional black pudding.

In a nutshell (no pun intended), healthy food comes from farms, not factories; from living botanical plants, not industrial processing plants.

Want a superior kind of food? Try real whole fruits and nuts and leave the added sugars, starches, fibers, emulsifiers, micronutrient mixes, and "natural" flavors in those less-than-healthy boxes on the shelf.

I have no real or perceived conflicts of interest