New FDA Nutrition Guidelines: The Food and Drug Administration proposes updating “healthy” claims on food labels. Today we unpack these new guidelines and explain why relying on such food labels can lead you astray regarding natural health.
Updating the Science
The FDA’s proposal to update their nutrition standards comes after the White House held a conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health and released a new national strategy to end hunger and improve nutrition and physical activity 1. Since the bulk of the FDA’s nutritional standards dates back to the 90s, there’s no doubt that new guidelines are needed.
Many of the foods we see labeled as healthy (and their associated labeling standards approved by the FDA) are rooted in outdated or corrupt science. Look no further than your local grocery store to see sugary cereals getting nutritional thumbs up while grass-finished red meat is being demonized. The bulk of the current standards is against fat (especially saturated animal fats), red meat, cholesterol, and sodium in blind favor of vitamins and dietary fiber (with no mention of their quality).
But what is this updated science all about? Can we trust it? Let’s unpack.
New FDA Nutrition Guidelines
The new FDA nutrition guidelines for the proposed updated FDA health standard revolve around two main points:
- The product must contain a certain, meaningful amount of food from at least one of the food groups or subgroups – like fruits, vegetables, or dairy – recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2.
- The product must adhere to specific limits for certain nutrients, such as saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.
So quite simply, they categorize a product as being healthy (or not) depending on if it contains enough of the “good” and not too much of the “bad,” which is theoretically logical. The problems stem from outdated assumptions about what makes certain macronutrients and micronutrients good or bad for human health.
New FDA Nutrition Guidelines: The Old Problems Still Remain
Although the framework attempted to rectify the outdated paradigm, many fundamental wrong beliefs about nutrition remain. Let’s unpack some of the biggest myths about foods.
Saturated fats are animal fats that include butter, cheese, coconut oil, and red meat. These foods are often demonized with claims that they lead to obesity and various diseases. The reality, however, is that linking these foods to illness only tells one side of the story.
Most of us grew up with deeply engrained associations between saturated fats and heart disease. Yet, today, many mainstream and even large “healthcare” institutions still link saturated fats to an array of disease models 3. The problem is none of these studies explore the quality of the saturated fats (i.e., a grass-finished steak vs. a highly-processed fast-food burger pattie), nor do they take into account the other ingredients and foods consumed alongside the saturated fats (i.e., the steak eaten with organic sweet potato, or the fast-food burger eaten with french fries deep fried in canola oil, with a soft drink).
Luckily, many are beginning to see that animal foods and traditional diets are the most nutrient-dense on the planet 4. Unfortunately, the science is typically slow to catch up, but it is still grossly disappointing to see the new FDA recommendations reflect this biased, bad science.
Salt is another funny ingredient that mainstream health experts love to hate, even though this mineral is vital to human health. A lot of salt in packaged products is highly refined and contains other ingredients like anti-caking and bleaching agents 5. These added ingredients do nothing for health, unlike unrefined, all-natural salts like pure sea salt or Himalayan salt.
As electrical beings, our bodies need salt to survive. The problems start when we begin to introduce hyper-palatable foods into our diet. These hyper-palatable foods use literal food chemists to find a combination of fat, sugar, and salt (all refined) that make us want to keep eating until we have to unbutton our jeans 6.
When we salt whole foods and home-cooked meals, our pallets are natural metrics for how much salt we need. Capping it based on a daily value is not a useful way to talk about salt, nor is it demonizing its use. The FDA will unqualify a food as “healthy” based on a percent of the daily value for the nutrient, which varies depending on the food and food group. The limit for sodium, for example, is 10% of the DV per serving 2. Using these arbitrary percentages makes many people think salt is innately unhealthy, but it only tells a small part of a much bigger story.
Quality of Nutrients Vs. Quantity
When we look at the new FDA nutrition guidelines and what the FDA deems important to qualify a food as healthy, we aren’t getting the whole picture yet again. Although vitamins, for example, are theoretically beneficial, the presence of a vitamin alone is not enough information to know if the vitamin itself is nutritious or possibly even harmful.
One great example is vitamin B9, which in its natural form, is called folate. Folate is found in many whole foods like liver, seafood, and dark leafy greens. In its whole-food form, this vitamin is indeed linked with various health-boosting benefits, including red blood cell formation and healthy cell growth and function 7. In its synthetic form, vitamin B6 is called folic acid, and although many institutions use the two interchangeably, they do not behave the same in the human body. The synthetic form of B6, or folic acid, has been associated with various health concerns, especially those with the MTFHR gene mutation 8.
Many companies will add a synthetic form of iron or calcium to a packaged food to qualify as a nutrient-dense product. We see this across the cereal aisle, where ultra-sugary and refined cereals are fortified with a synthetic iron, therefore qualifying them as a “healthy” food. Instead of basing health on such synthetic additives, it would be more valuable for us to know at baseline how nutritious the raw ingredients are chosen to make these foods actually are.
Raw & Unpasteurised
This is a rather controversial topic in the realm of health since (again) many of us grew up being warned about the dangers of raw and unpasteurized foods. From bacterial and parasites to mold and other contaminations, FDA warning labels have been telling us for years to stay clear from products like raw milk 9.
Oils are one of the biggest problems in dietary dogma, a problem born out of the saturated-fat phobia. In their Dietary Guidelines, many oils are recommended as part of a healthy diet, including canola, soybean, safflower, peanut, and corn 2. Unfortunately, these polyunsaturated fats are extremely heat-sensitive fats that have no place being treated with extreme heat and processing like many of these industrial seed oils are. But, back to quality, the guidelines don’t account for how these foods are treated. When PUFAs are exposed to high heat, they oxidize, turning them rancid 10. As a result, many of these fats are toxic before they ever make it to your plate.
In the same section, highly saturated fats are said to be unhealthy for humans; therefore, they are not recommended for human consumption 10. It’s shocking that despite all the evidence supporting the importance of saturated fats in our diet and how wrongly they’ve been associated with disease, these governing bodies still advise the opposite of what we need as humans to experience vibrant health 11.
Big corporations are pushing buzzwords like “nutrient density” in ways that promote the literal opposite. Nutrient density isn’t about being low-calorie or low-sugar; healthy fats (including saturated fats), salt, and animal products are, by definition, nutritionally dense foods.
New FDA Nutrition Guidelines: Can You Trust Labels?
Their foundations are fundamentally flawed when blindly trusting government and FDA ratings of healthy foods. Many products reach 5-star health ratings for various reasons, while others genuinely support vibrant health. So what to do instead?
Although the realm of nutrition can be confusing, it’s important to know why you do what you do. Regarding healthy foods, leaning into whole foods our ancestors ate can be a good starting place. Minimally processed, void of sneaky additives, synthetic supplementation, and artificial flavors and colors. Although packaged food can be convenient at times, it’s important not to make it the bulk of your diet. Opting instead for whole foods with a single ingredient, and ideally cooking at home so that you know exactly what goes into your food (and the quality of every ingredient).
It can be overwhelming to realize that our governing bodies are still missing the point of generating vibrant human health through proper nutrition. Still, it starts with a better understanding of ancestral health, traditional cooking methods, and nourishing your body. Then, in time, share your newfound wisdom with those around you and let that ripple out into the world.
Although the FDA is currently reviewing some of its policies to claim whether a food is healthy, many of the old problems remain regarding their underlying assumptions about nutrition and health. For example, demonized foods like raw and unpasteurized foods, saturated fats, and salt are not properly understood in a bigger context. They also fail to examine the quality of nutrients, as opposed to their current over-valuation of quantity.
- White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, health.gov/our-work/nutrition-physical-activity/white-house-conference-hunger-nutrition-and-health.
- “Current Dietary Guidelines.” Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 and Online Materials | Dietary Guidelines for Americans, https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf
- “Facts about Saturated Fats: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000838.htm.
- Foundation, The Weston A Price, et al. “Timeless Principles of Healthy Traditional Diets.” The Weston A. Price Foundation, 25 Apr. 2021, www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/abcs-of-nutrition/principles-of-healthy-diets-2/.
- Zelman, Kathleen. “Humectants and Anticaking Agents.” Food & Nutrition Magazine, 26 Oct. 2017, foodandnutrition.org/july-august-2017/humectants-and-anticaking-agents/.
- Moss, Michael. Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. WH Allen, 2014.
- “Folate (Folic Acid).” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 23 Feb. 2021, www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements-folate/art-20364625.
- Tafuri, Laura, et al. “The Hazards of Excessive Folic Acid Intake in MTHFR Gene Mutation Carriers: An Obstetric and Gynecological Perspective.” Clinical Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Medicine, vol. 4, no. 2, 2018, doi:10.15761/cogrm.1000215.
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Raw Milk Questions & Answers.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, www.fda.gov/food/buy-store-serve-safe-food/raw-milk-questions-answers.
- Szabo, Zoltan et al. “Effects of Repeated Heating on Fatty Acid Composition of Plant-Based Cooking Oils.” Foods (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 11,2 192. 12 Jan. 2022, doi:10.3390/foods11020192
- Chris Kresser, M.S. “Dietary Cholesterol Myth: Saturated Fat Is Not an Enemy.” Chris Kresser, 3 Aug. 2022, chriskresser.com/the-diet-heart-myth-cholesterol-and-saturated-fat-are-not-the-enemy/.