Don’t Let the FDA Tell You What’s Healthy

by
Reprinted from the Independent Institute

A glance at America’s growing waistline shows closing gyms and limiting travel away from home to combat the pandemic has worsened public health in America. 

Results from a 2021 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association found 61 percent of respondents experienced unwanted weight gain during the pandemic (by an average of 29 pounds). Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds children experienced the most significant weight gain over the past two years, many of which experienced an alarming 1.6 percent increase in BMI.

Losing weight is never easy, often requiring daily commitment to dietary and lifestyle changes. The Food and Drug Administration’s latest effort aims to help.

Hoping to “improve nutrition and dietary patterns to help reduce the burden of chronic disease and advance health equity,” the FDA recently proposed new nutritional requirements for food producers to label their products as “healthy.” Under new rules, each food item is required to contain one of the major food groups and not exceed limits of daily values for certain nutrients. 

What food items count and what nutrients need to be limited are dictated in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a 2020-2025 document jointly produced by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture. By teaming up to provide new guidelines, these agencies hope to help Americans make better dietary choices to improve their health. As HHS Secretary HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra explains, “Healthy food can lower our risk for chronic disease. But too many people may not know what constitutes healthy food.”

That might be true. Americans tend to overestimate how healthily they eat. But we also wildly overestimate the FDA’s ability to regulate what is healthy correctly. 

As I have written previously, the FDA spent considerable time and effort, and ultimately failed to establish sugar-added nutritional labels for honey and maple syrup. The same agency also struggled for years to determine safety standards for children’s’ sunscreen (changing them at least every two years for a decade). Most recently, the FDA decided the Owlet’s Smart Sock was not effective and ordered they be removed from store shelves. The Smart Sock was the only commercially available device that monitors an infant’s breathing and pulse, boasted a 90 percent success rate, and is still widely used worldwide.

Partnering with other government agencies hardly improves the chance for success. 

Confusing, expensive, and time-consuming co-regulation of genomic medication between the FDA, Office of Biotechnology Activities, and the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee has prevented these treatments from reaching patients for decades. The FDA and CDC’s efforts to provide a Covid-19 test during the early stages of the pandemic produced the only Covid-19 test to be removed from the market for efficacy and manufacturing concerns (the FDA regulates both).

This is also far from the first-time government agencies offered dietary guidelines to improve public health. In the mid-1970s, the USDA established the widely recognized food pyramid, stating which food groups are healthier and should be consumed more than others. Over the years, other government agencies have become more involved in promoting diets and regulating how food is marketed. Diagrams and suggested diets have changed numerous times since then. However, as Gary Taubes chronicles in his book Good Calories, Bad Calories, there is little evidence that any state-recommended healthy eating guidelines were scientifically valid. 

Ultimately, determining what is healthy or unhealthy is complex. Complex problems rarely have entirely right or wrong answers. The FDA is trying (again) to provide this, but there is a slim chance it will succeed. 

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