The US Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday proposed a long-awaited revision to defining the term “healthy” on food packaging—finally reversing the mind-boggling criteria of the 1990s that made healthy foods like nuts, salmon, avocados, olive oil, and even water unfit for labeling.
The new definition is not immune to criticism, and Americans will likely still face uncertainty about healthy food choices as they stroll the grocery store aisles. But the proposed update — which coincides with this week’s White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health and the National Strategy to Improve U.S. Nutrition and Reduce Hunger — is a clear improvement.
Under current criteria established in 1994, the FDA allows food manufacturers to label their products as “healthy” based on short-sighted highs and lows for certain nutrients. This means that a “healthy” meal has the universal maximum for saturated fat, total fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and must provide at least 10 percent of the daily value of one or more of the following nutrients: vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron , protein and fiber.
Under this rule, foods with high amounts of added sugar, such as low-fat yogurts or sweetened breakfast cereals intended for children, qualify for the “healthy” label because they meet other requirements. The same applies to some questionable in terms of nutritional value of white bread. However, whole foods such as avocados or currently recommended meats such as salmon are unsuitable due to their fat content, which is contrary to modern, evidence-based, healthy plant-based foods. And even ordinary water or ordinary carbonated water cannot be called “healthy”.
A new rule
The absurdity of this definition hit the headlines in 2015 when the FDA sent a warning letter to the maker of Kind bars, telling them it couldn’t use the term “healthy” for its nut-based bars because they were too high in saturated fat. Nuts and seeds alone generally do not qualify for the “healthy” label under the current rule. The company pushed back, and in 2016 the FDA reversed course, saying it planned to update the definition, which led us to this week’s proposed update.
Under the FDA’s proposed rule, which is still subject to change, the agency now takes a more holistic approach to evaluating products, stating that products can be labeled as healthy if they:
- Contain a certain significant amount of food from at least one of the food groups or subgroups (such as fruits, vegetables, dairy products, etc.) recommended by the Dietary Guidelines.
- Stick to specific limits on certain nutrients, such as saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar.
It is important to note that in this last point, nutrient limit thresholds will vary depending on the type of food or food group contained in the product, ie an olive oil-based product has a higher limit for saturated fat than products based on olive oil. plant-based, which have a lower limit of added sugar than grain-based products. The FDA has provided a helpful table here on proposed limits for various food groups.
The FDA also offered an example of a cereal that would meet the new “healthy” definition: It “must contain ¾ ounce of whole grains and no more than 1 gram of saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium and 2.5 grams of added sugar.”
The FDA hopes the changes will help consumers make better choices at the grocery store and encourage food manufacturers to adjust their products to meet the new definition.
The revision is “an important step toward meeting a number of nutrition-related priorities, which include empowering consumers with information to make healthier diet choices and establish healthy eating habits early,” said FDA Commissioner Robert Califf. “It can also lead to healthier eating.”
Changes are needed
Nutrition goals like these are more important than ever. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported data showing that the number of states with high rates of adult obesity, defined as 35 percent of adults or more more than twice as of 2018. Nineteen states and two territories now have high rates. Childhood obesity has also increased amid the pandemic. In accordance with a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last yearthe percentage of children aged 5 to 11 who are “overweight” or “obese” rose from 36.2 percent a year before the pandemic to 45.7 percent by January 2021.
Obesity at any age can cause serious health conditions in people, such as high blood pressure, sleep apnea, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, the severe effects of COVID-19, and poor mental health. The top three causes of death in 2020 were heart disease, cancer and COVID-19.
Of course, obesity is a complex, multifactorial health condition, and diet is only one part of it. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that people in the US are eating poorly, and that the quintessential American diet is contributing to chronic health problems. The FDA notes that 75 percent of Americans follow a diet low in fruits, vegetables, and dairy; 77 percent get too much saturated fat; 63 percent eat too much added sugar; and a whopping 90 percent exceed the sodium limit.
The FDA’s proposed new definition of “healthy” certainly won’t solve these problems in one fell swoop. Some health advocates and experts say that this may have minimal consequences, and that package labeling that warns unhealthy content – with things like red light symbols – can be more effective than “healthy” food labeling. But the update is a clear improvement over the current definition of “healthy,” which falls short of evidence-based dietary guidelines.
In comments to The Washington Post, Kind CEO Russell Stokes said the company was noting the proposed update. “A rule that reflects current nutrition science and dietary guidelines for Americans is a win for public health, and it’s a win for all of us.”