by Linn Steward
A philosophy of dietary correctness pervades our food environment. I’m particularly aware of this philosophy because as a recipe analyst who has worked over the last 5 years with institutional foodservice and publishers, my job has been to run nutrition stats and “correct” recipes.
Linn Steward and I have been dialoging for three years via email, on this site, and even in Food Technology. Although we still have stark disagreements, we are influencing each other’s perspectives. Her Kiss ☠️ Test where a healthy food kills its popularity is a unique approach to understanding healthy-food policy. As a recipe analyst, she dips into her recipe file to test out her theory.
The nutrition component of this philosophy was formalized in the early 1990s. The Nutrition Facts Label as mandated by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) appeared on food product in 1994. The FDA extended the privilege to restaurants on a voluntary basis in 1997. Most chefs and restaurant owners chose to ignore the offer but a few did accept the challenge and started listing healthy items on their menus. The standing joke at the time in the industry was the fastest way to get an item off the menu was to label that item healthy – the kiss of death.
Fast forward to today. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines are clear about what constitutes a healthy dietary pattern. The guidelines are equally clear about our collective failure to follow the rules. On a scale of 1 to 100, as a nation we have a collective score of 59. We fail.
What also seems abundantly clear is that many of my fellow Americans do not want to eat healthy.
In 2022, the FDA proposed an update to the use of the term healthy of food products. This proposal extends the approach laid out in our Dietary Guidelines to food products. It’s estimated that only 4% of the food products available on supermarket shelves would qualify to make the claim as proposed.
As an eater who chooses not to follow all the rules and a dietitian who knows how to run the stats, my plan is to investigate the disconnect between what tastes good to me and what labels / guidelines say is good for our health. Towards that end, I’ve put together a construct consisting of the three parts detailed below. My plan is to use my own recipes for the investigation. In honor of those original restaurant chefs who tried and failed to put healthy items on restaurant menus, I call the construct “The Kiss ☠️ Test”.
✔️ FOOD = PASS or FAIL
Food is the easy part. Everyone today – health professionals, academics, food activists, researchers, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) – agrees that food should come first.
Our current Dietary Guidelines are based on five food groups: Vegetables, Fruits, Grains, Dairy, Protein. The recent FDA proposal to update the use of the term healthy now requires that the food product contain a “meaningful amount” at least one food group.
Michael Pollan’s infamous 7 words begin with “Eat Food”.
NOVA, the Brazilian food classification system, gives preference to freshly prepared meals made with mostly whole minimally processed intact foods.
✔️ NUTRITION = PASS or FAIL … or MAYBE
Nutrition is the hard part. That’s because nutrition is a relatively new science characterized by complexity and contradictions. Nutrition labeling has been just as challenging as nutrition research.
As a nutrition student back in the 1990s, I was taught to define healthy as low fat, low saturated fat, low cholesterol, low sodium, and a specific percentage of certain micronutrients. By the time I went back to school, I had a collection of recipes from various places I had lived. My original plan was to learn how to run stats so I could write the nutrition backstory for my own recipes.
My original plan crashed and burned when I discovered none of my recipes would be considered healthy. I was not alone. The food industry also had a problem with how healthy was defined.
The food industry immediately challenged the highly restrictive level set for sodium and the FDA agreed to increase the limit in order to give the industry time to reformulate. Low fat was successfully challenged in 2015 providing the impetus for the current proposed FDA update. Added Sugar was addressed by the FDA in 2016.
When the FDA published a proposed update to the use of the term healthy on food product labels in 2022, I was hopeful my recipes would do better.
The proposal sets limits on sodium, saturated fat, and added sugar and uses a percentage of Daily Value (DV) as the limiting metric of choice. This percentage varies however depending on the food group and serving size.
Using my own recipes as well as the food groups and nutrient metrics proposed by the FDA proposed update, I can once again systematically work my way through my own collection.
A recipe that meets the criteria will PASS. A recipe that clearly doesn’t will FAIL. A recipe that doesn’t meet the 1994 metrics, which are still in effect today, but may qualify assuming the proposed metrics remain constant when FDA publishes the final rule will be MAYBE.
✔️ THE VIEW FROM MY KITCHEN WINDOW
This section is free from and allows me to step back and discuss consequences, both intended and unintended, of my findings.
For her analysis of her home-baked-cookie recipe and how it compares to an Oreo, I send you to her website
Coming soon: Healthy foods, healthy meals, healthy dietary patterns
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