The FDA Wants to Rewrite the Healthy Definition

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As nutrition-conscious consumers, we toss around the word “healthy” a lot, often assuming that everyone shares the same beliefs. And yes, we can probably all agree that foods like fresh fruits, veggies, and plain water are healthy. However, when it comes to packaged foods, the meaning of “healthy” as a general descriptor gets murky. 

Why the change?

I’ve written previously on how the Guiding Stars program defines “nutritious” food. “Healthy” has even more layers of meaning, and they don’t all fit within the parameters of a labeling term. Until now, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shied away from overhauling its 1994 regulatory criteria for the term. And who can blame them? It’s difficult to find a fair, thorough, and consistent way to accurately describe such a wide variety of foods as “healthy.” The 100+ pages of the FDA guidelines certainly reflect the complexity of the task. 

Under the old rules, about 5% of all packaged foods receive the “healthy” label. But nutrition science and public health recommendations have changed since the 1990s. It is no longer accurate to say what constitutes a “healthy” food based on the old definition. For example, fat content is a big emphasis in the old definition of “healthy.” As a result, higher-fat foods including salmon, for example, do not qualify as “healthy.” On the flip side, lower-fat foods such as sugary breakfast cereals do, even though current science doesn’t support that determination. Clearly, we need an update. 

Insights into the revised “healthy”

The agency released its proposed rule in September. It includes an updated definition of “healthy” for use on package labels as well as product and manufacturer websites. The new definition will better account for how various nutrients contribute to healthy dietary patterns and potential health improvements. 

The FDA proposes a two-pronged approach to defining the term:

  1. By food group – a “healthy” food must include a meaningful amount of at least one food group (or subgroup) recommended in the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, and
  2. By nutrient limits – the food must not exceed limits for sodium (<10% Daily Value), added sugars (<5% Daily Value) or saturated fat (<5% of Daily Value).

This is not an either/or situation. Food manufacturers that want to include “healthy” on product labels will need to address both requirements. The product must contain a serving (or meaningful amount) of a food group. It must also fall within the nutrient limits for sodium, added sugars and saturated fat.

The requirements are further delineated by type:

  • Raw, whole fruits. and vegetables
  • Individual food products
  • Mixed products
  • Main dish
  • Meal
  • Water 

Category-specific requirements will ensure that the same nutritional standards aren’t applied to inherently different foods (e.g., meats and fruits). This is very similar to how Guiding Stars applies algorithms to different categories of foods. Guiding Stars uses five different algorithms to evaluate the nutrient density of different types of food products. This process enables us to present equitable and meaningful comparisons. 

What does this mean for consumers?

First, since this rule is proposed and not final, nothing will change right away. Things tend to move slowly when it comes to major food labeling changes. Currently, the FDA is accepting comments about the proposed rule — from anyone, including consumers, trade boards, and food manufacturers. You can use this link to submit your comments through December 28, 2022. The entire process from proposed rule to final rule can take years — the road to change is long. Until then, use Guiding Stars signage and label icons to continue making the most nutritious choices for your family.