With $25 million, Kind’s founder backs research into influence on nutrition policy

Since their first appearance in health-centric stores more than a decade ago, the Kind company’s fruit-and-nut bars have become ubiquitous, occupying ever-expanding shelf space in big box and convenience stores across the country. The company has thrived on a do-gooder ethos that encourages not just healthy eating, but righteous living. Employees who witness “random acts of kindness” are encouraged to bestow the company’s products on good samaritans. Kind is now a $1-billion company.

But in the last couple of years the company has drawn the scrutiny of regulators at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, who challenged the “healthy” claim on some of its bars. On Wednesday, the company escalated its involvement in the contentious world of nutrition politics with the launch of Feed the Truth — an effort, Kind says, to counteract “the food industry’s undue influence in shaping nutrition policy.”

Recently, “Big Sugar” and its allies in the food and beverage industry have come under fire for funding groups and research that downplay the link between sugar and obesity. The American Academy of Pediatrics and American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics admitted in 2015 to taking funds from Coca-Cola and later cut their ties with the company. And it was revealed that Coke also had funded “science-based” research that concluded that exercise, not fewer calories, was most important in fighting obesity.  

“Every special interest has an enormous amount of resources and the public doesn’t,” said Kind’s founder, Daniel Lubetzky, in an interview with FERN’s Ag Insider this week.

Lubetzky insists his role in Feed the Truth will be entirely hands-off. He has made a contribution of $5 million through his donor-advised fund and plans to throw in another $20 million over the next decade. He’s enlisted influential names in the nutrition policy arena to nominate a board of directors: Deb Eschmeyer, the former senior policy adviser on nutrition to the Obama White House; Michael Jacobson, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has long watch-dogged the food industry; and Marion Nestle, a prominent nutrition professor and industry critic who has questioned Kind’s labeling approach.

Lubetzky may separate himself from Feed the Truth and its activities, which could include everything from funding journalism to public information campaigns. But there is no doubt that Kind could benefit from any light the project sheds on the food industry’s sway over nutrition science, in particular the ongoing battle to determine the greater evil of sugar versus fat.

In 2015, the FDA warned Kind that the “healthy” claim on some of its bars ran afoul of the agency’s rules, which say that a product with more than 1 gram of saturated fat can’t be labeled “healthy.” Some Kind bars have as much as 5 grams of saturated fat. Later that year, Kind petitioned the agency to reconsider, saying its regulations stemmed from outdated science that vilified fats, even those in nutrient-dense food. Under the existing rules, Kind argued, sugary cereals can be considered “healthy,” while salmon, avocados and nuts cannot.

“That’s how we got into the middle of this,” Lubetzky said. “We learned that the regulation was so broken.”

Last year, the FDA said it would allow the company to continue using the term “healthy” on its labels as long as the term was presented as part of the company’s “corporate philosophy,” and not as a nutrient claim. But the company’s petition pushed the agency to begin a public process of overhauling the definition of the “healthy” claim.

“The FDA agreed to open up the process and issue guidance, and recognized that this regulation was outdated,” Lubetzky said. “We don’t have a feud with the FDA.”

Rather, Lubetzky reserves his ire for the sugar industry. Last fall, researchers published a study in JAMA Internal Medicine that tracked the sugar industry’s suppression of evidence, dating back to the 1960s, linking sugar consumption to heart disease, instead singling out fat and cholesterol as the culprits.  

“I’ve seen many other examples of industry associations and other groups narrowly advocating, ad absurdum, a particular point at the expense of the nation’s health,” Lubetzky said. “It’s truly infuriating.”

The sugar industry’s efforts influenced decades of federal nutrition policy — including the government’s conception of what defines “healthy.”

Today, that is a very valuable definition.

Over the past five years, consumption of nutrition and cereal bars has surged as consumers have started reaching for convenience food that also promises healthful ingredients. The market for bars has grown by about 7.5 percent a year since 2012, reaching sales of $8.3 billion in the U.S. last year.

“It’s an easy and convenient way to achieve a health goal, and there’s been a lot more marketing push behind that,” said Darren Seifer, a food and beverage industry analyst with the market research firm NPD Group. “But the word ‘healthy’ is very ill-defined.”

Kind is one of the fastest growing companies of its type, having traded on its promises of a nutritious product, so getting clarity on the definition of healthy — in both the regulatory arena and the marketplace — is critical.

But Lubetzky says he’s motivated by principle. “A lot of these policies are unduly influenced by big industry giants…. and the companies that are making healthy food don’t end up getting engaged,” he said. “I don’t think Kind was ever inclined to go into politics. We’re grudgingly moving into this because we think it’s our duty.”

Georgina Gustin writes about food policy, agriculture and the environment. She last wrote about U.S. nutrition guidelines for FERN.