Who decides which foods are healthy and which aren’t?

It is a strange paradox that, despite the increase people throughout the developed world becoming either overweight or obese, more people are also concerned with healthy eating. Millennials – people reaching adulthood in the early 21st century – tend to be leading the way in this healthy eating movement. A report last year by PricewaterhouseCoopers suggested that nearly half (47 per cent) of the 18-34 age group had consciously changed their eating habits towards a healthier diet in the previous 12 months.

A key reason for this is believed to be an increased awareness among millennials of the benefits of healthier eating – perhaps due to its prevalence on social media. By comparison, only 23 per cent of those aged 55 had changed their eating habits for increased health benefits.

This looks more than just a flash in the pan too. According to Nielsen’s Global Health and Wellness Survey, 41 per cent of generation Z members (those under the age of 20) are willing to spend more money on healthier foods, compared to just 32 per cent of millennials.

So who actually decides which foods are ‘healthy’, and which are not?

This obviously varies depending on which corner of the globe one is buying food. Countries within the European Union (EU) must abide by the same rules which are in place to both protect the consumer from spurious claims, but also benefit producers of genuinely healthy foods. Regarding claims such as ‘low-fat’ or ‘high fibre’, food labelling must be “clear, accurate and based on scientific evidence.” The EU also released a roadmap to be followed to assess the regulations involved to ensure they achieve their objectives.

In America, the responsibility of regulation falls on the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA sets out clear guidelines regarding what nutrient content claims – or NCCs – can be made, and how they can be put across. For example, an NCC can be no more than twice as prominent as the name of the food itself.

Equally, disclosure statements are required for foods containing nutrients or ingredients which could increase the risk of a disease or health-related condition which is linked to diet. These must be in legible, boldface type and in distinct contrast to other printed or graphic matter.

It is interesting to note that, with many stringent rules being enforced by multiple agencies, consumers are more than happy to act if they smell a rat.

When it was discovered that Chipotle Mexican Grill used genetically modified corn and oil among other ingredients, consumer outcry led to the chain replacing all genetically modified ingredients. They also adopted free-range beef.

Sandwich giants Subway were found to use azodicarbonamide, also known as the ‘yoga mat chemical’. It is used in both yoga mats and bread to give it a more spongy texture, and was swiftly removed by Subway after public outing.

Consumers voting with their feet and threatening profits remains as effective a means of regulation as ever.


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