The FDA has been cracking down on what it takes to label your food lately. But one company is fighting back—and rightly so.

KIND, known for their snack bars filled with dried fruits, nuts, granola, and more, have always marketed themselves as a healthy snack food; their packages have transparent packaging, boasting “ingredients you can see and pronounce.”

But since March of this year, KIND has kind of been engaged in a battle with the FDA, who claims that their advertising is misleading. In the agency’s eyes, KIND has been mislabeling a lot of things on their wrappers, including antioxidants, trans fats, and the use of the “+” sign that means a snack was fortified with extra nutrients.

Photo Credit: JeepersMedia  cc
Photo Credit: JeepersMedia cc

Additionally, at least four of the bars the company sells have anywhere from 2.5 to 3 grams of saturated fat per 40 grams, well over the 1 gram limit the FDA requires. For their part, KIND has agreed to scale back the offending labels, defending themselves on their blog, standing behind their products without going into a defensive posture.

But that doesn’t mean the company is without a leg to stand on: Last week, it sent the FDA a citizen petition signed by 16 experts urging the FDA to change its guidelines, which haven’t been changed in 20 years. Under the current regulations, food can’t be labeled as “healthy” unless it’s under a specific total far or saturated fat content. “Low (saturated) fat” criteria could be met by fat-free sweets or sugary cereals, while “healthy” foods—nuts, avocados, olives, oranges, etc.—would not. KIND’s petition specifically calls for “healthy” to be an appropriate label on bases other than total far content contributed to a product by foods that might be naturally higher in it (fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and more).

Whether it’s a marketing ploy or not, the move is a valiant effort, and one that’s long overdue. Though our understanding of eating disorders has evolved, evidence to explain nutritional science is consistently lacking and constantly evolving. As The New York Times has written, the “hypothesis and test” methodology can’t manage the variables of nutritional lifestyles, especially when no one will pay:

Here’s another possibility: The 600,000 articles — along with several tens of thousands of diet books — are the noise generated by a dysfunctional research establishment. Because the nutrition research community has failed to establish reliable, unambiguous knowledge about the environmental triggers of obesity and diabetes, it has opened the door to a diversity of opinions on the subject, of hypotheses about cause, cure and prevention, many of which cannot be refuted by the existing evidence. Everyone has a theory. The evidence doesn’t exist to say unequivocally who’s wrong.

…It’s an unacceptable situation. Obesity and diabetes are epidemic, and yet the only relevant fact on which relatively unambiguous data exist to support a consensus is that most of us are surely eating too much of something. (My vote is sugars and refined grains; we all have our biases.) Making meaningful inroads against obesity and diabetes on a population level requires that we know how to treat and prevent it on an individual level. We’re going to have to stop believing we know the answer, and challenge ourselves to come up with trials that do a better job of testing our beliefs.

Their petition may seem a bit self-serving, but that doesn’t mean KIND isn’t calling the FDA out on some hypocrisy: Their guidelines are useless if they’re not founded on actual science to back them up. Which there isn’t.  

It’s probably understandable how a federal agency like the FDA wouldn’t want to be endorsing something as vilified as fat is as potentially a healthy part of a balanced diet. But the very truth of the matter is that they don’t know whether they should be or not, whether in moderation or just specific types, because decades of scientists and researchers haven’t fully decided yet. In the meantime pretending “healthy” is any sort of simple guideline the modern food market can fall neatly into is a gross oversimplification. The only thing the research can agree on is that nutrition is much, much more nuanced than that.

“People eat food, not nutrients,” Maron Nestle, nutrition professor and author of “Food Politics” told Vox. “When people eat healthier diets they do better, and it doesn’t have anything to do with how much carbohydrate or protein or fat they ate.”

Sure, changing nutrition guidelines for every fad diet or fluke study that hits the market isn’t conceivable either. But if the FDA wants to be the arbiter of “healthy” labels (amongst others) or not they can’t be disregarding the nutrient density of otherwise “high-fat” foods. High in calories or fat doesn’t simply make food unhealthy, and the FDA isn’t doing its job educating the public if they pretend it is.  We are what we eat, but maybe it’s time we stopped pretending like we know exactly what that is.