We live in changing times. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal Americans have become ‘serial snackers’ with 48% of us skipping meals, in favor of snacks at least three times a week.
In this culture of grab and go eating, the reigning champion of the modern table is the snack bar. The snack bar lands in the top tier of most popular snack foods with yogurt and bakery items.
There has been debate in recent times as to whether this is healthy for us. Should we be eating three meals a day, a human practice dating back to ancient Greece or is modern life taking us in the direction of eating on the run (oh, I hope not…).
In any case, a snack bar that is quite popular among natural food enthusiasts is KIND Snacks which have recently come under fire by the FDA for their use of the word healthy on some of their products. The FDA contends that KIND Fruit & Nut Bars (specifically Fruit & Nut Almond & Apricot, Fruit & Nut Almond & Coconut, KIND Plus Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate + Protein, and KIND Plus Dark Chocolate Cherry Cashew + Antioxidants) have misbranded their snack bars since they do not meet the FDA criteria of healthy. (There’s an irony here that I hope is not escaping us, with all the junk food the FDA allows in our diet; seems like a game of semantics…)
Now, I am the first to say that food marketing is driving the loss of our collective health, but I have to stand up for KIND. I must begin by saying that I am not a huge fan of snack bars in general as they never seem to be worth the calories, so I have no vested interest here except fair play. That said, it’s important to look at what’s going on here.
The FDA has strict definitions for nutrient content claims. It’s an attempt to avoid consumer confusion in the sea of marketing claims that drive our purchasing habits. The FDA contends that if an item claims to be a great source of fiber or protein or antioxidants, we the consumers should be able to trust that claim.
Here’s where it can get dodgy…and where marketing wins over reality. According to FDA regulations, a food can be labeled as ‘healthy’ only if it contains no more than 1 gram of saturated fat, no more than 15% of calories coming from saturated fat, no more than 480 mg of sodium and it must contain at least 10% of the daily value of Vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, protein or fiber.
Each of the four flavors of KIND snack bars contain between 2.5 and 5 grams of saturated fats.
So as long as a product doesn’t claim to be healthy, processed foods manufacturers can disregard these standards from every angle and not incur the wrath of the FDA.
KIND, as you might imagine stands by their products as a ‘safe and nutritious snack choice’ and is working to comply with the FDA regulations, by making ‘labeling adjustments.’ The ‘villains’ in these bars are nuts and added oils, pure and simple. They are higher in fats than the regulations allow. Even though nuts are richer in beneficial fats than saturated fats, the coconut and palm oil, as well as the dark chocolate in some of the bars that have taken them over the recommended levels of fat.
But hang on a minute.
According to Dr. Walter Willett, Chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the FDA warning as “well-intentioned but absurd.” “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,” he said, while also acknowledging the complexity of the FDA’s responsibility in regulating nutrition. He goes on to say that it’s challenging for the FDA to determine how much saturated fat comes from nuts versus added oils (like the palm and coconut oil in KIND bars).
I decided to look at their ingredients side by side with some other snack bars and this is where the marketing piece fits so nicely into warping our view of what is and isn’t healthy.
Nature Valley Granola Bars (made by General Mills) doesn’t use the word healthy on their label. But every single implication on the product package is that it’s good for you. From ‘100% natural oats’ to the calorie, fat, sodium and sugar numbers right on the front of the package, the message is clear. This is good for us.
But is it?
The ingredient panel of just one of their nut bars, The Sweet and Salty Nut Almond Granola Bar includes: corn syrup, sugar, fructose, barley malt extract, palm oil and other ingredients for a total of about 24 items in each bar. Some of the bars show fewer ingredients to be fair, but since this bar was comparable to KIND nut bars, I used it.
Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain Bars also eliminate the word ‘healthy’ from their label but imply it with product name and other marketing ploys like ‘harvest’ and ‘nutri’ as well as ‘grain.’ With more than 30 ingredients, some natural and some, well…not so much (including Red 40 and Blue 1 dyes), these may not be as healthy for us as they appear.
I could go on and on here. We have all seen the snack bars that appear to be healthy with words and photos of nature but in reality contain ingredient panels that read like Russian novels.
So what is KIND’s crime here? And are they unhealthy for us?
With 13 ingredients in their Almond & Apricot Bar (one of the bars in question), all of them natural, it seems to me KIND’s only crime was the use of the word ‘healthy’ as it relates to FDA compliance, maybe not even as it relates to actually being healthy.
Joe Cohen, Senior Vice President of Communications at KIND told me, “Nuts, key ingredients in many of our snacks and one of the things that make fans love our bars, contain nutritious fats that exceed the amount allowed under the FDA's standard. There is an overwhelming body of scientific evidence supporting that nuts are wholesome and nutritious. This is similar to other foods that do not meet the standard for use of the term healthy, but are generally considered to be good for you like avocados, salmon and eggs.”
There is no sinister plot afoot by KIND to sell us a bar that will steal our health, even though Marion Nestle, nutrition expert, likened them to candy bars. She quickly added (when speaking to Today.com), “"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." Her bias is plain and similar to mine, but in this case, I think we are taking the wrong products to task.
In my view, KIND stands for just the opposite of junk food. From their founding to their commitment to social entrepreneurship with impact , this company has made a commitment to giving back, to community involvement and in creating snacks from “ingredients you can see and pronounce” according to their website.
Unlike other snacks that may say they include whole ingredients, KIND snacks actually do contain whole ingredients. You can see the nuts and seeds, fruit, coconut and chocolate.
I support the need for the FDA to regulate the safety of our food, even where it fails the consumer. We need some semblance of standards. But it’s important to look at nutrients and product labels…always. One food, one snack alone does not make your diet healthy or unhealthy. It comes down to balance, variety, and moderation. And you won’t find any of these qualities on a food label. We must choose consciously the foods that will nourish us. We must choose whole foods.
In the end, I want to stand up for KIND. We all should. In my heart of hearts, I believe they are healthy as snacks go: a combination of nuts, fruit and assorted natural ingredients. Should we eat them every day? Probably not. But be kind to your health, your community and the planet.
Simply stated, feel free to eat KIND now and then.