- The FDA issued new guidelines for “healthy” food that vary based on the product type, with a baseline nutrient density for each. All foods that can be labeled as “healthy” bolster the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans. However, there is a limit for the amount of less beneficial nutrients — including added sugars, sodium and saturated fats — a food item with the claim can have.
- Under the new guidelines, something that is “healthy” needs to have the equivalent of a serving of fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy or protein foods as indicated in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Raw, whole fruits and vegetables automatically can bear the claim. There is a scale for different kinds of prepared products that has a nutrient requirement and percentage limits for the recommended daily intakes of added sugars, sodium and saturated fats.
- This definition, which has been six years in the making, is a comprehensive and multifaceted way to handle the label claim, which many consumers would readily accept as an indicator that a food item is unequivocally good for them.
At a 2017 public hearing about the “healthy” label claim, several nutritionists, medical professionals, community advocates and food company execs made one thing clear: “Healthy” does not have one specific definition. When it comes to food, there are many facets that need to be considered about the product, its process, its ingredients and how it is meant to be consumed.
FDA’s long awaited definition of the term reflects that belief. The 105-page rule is an in-depth and nuanced look at different types of food and beverage and how they can meet the classification of “healthy.” This definition also pulls from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, using the research into what people should be eating in a more practical way.
“Claims like ‘healthy’ provide information to consumers that allow them to quickly identify foods that can be the foundation of a healthy dietary pattern,” the proposed rule states. “Thus, the goal of this rulemaking is to update the definition of “healthy” as an implied nutrient content claim in the labeling of human food to help ensure that consumers have access to more complete, accurate, and up-to-date information about those foods.”
The claim was published less than an hour before the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health began. In the Biden administration’s strategy, published earlier this week, updating this definition was one of the top priorities to empower consumers to make healthy choices.
This definition of healthy takes into consideration different aspects of the typical American diet, as well as the way that people tend to eat. As most people eat three meals and one snack, the definition considers four eating occasions per day. And it defines some products as intrinsically healthy — raw, whole fruits and vegetables and water. It also emphasizes some products with less fats, looking at skim and fat-free dairy products as “healthy,” as well as looking at eggs, seeds and nuts as “healthy.”
For packaged products, it’s less easy to be able to tell from the outside if a product is “healthy” under the new definition. An example given in an FDA press release says a serving of “healthy” cereal would have ¾ ounces of whole grains, no more than 1 gram of saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium and 2.5 grams of added sugars..
“Healthy” was first given a regulated definition in 1994, but it focused heavily on fat content. After FDA asked Kind to remove the “healthy” claim from its labels in 2015 because of fat content — which came from the nuts in the company’s bars — the company formally petitioned for an update to its regulations. Under the old definition of “healthy,” naturally occurring fat content would prevent nuts, salmon and avocado from bearing that label.
In 2016, FDA reversed its stance on the “healthy” claim on Kind bars and announced it would work toward redefining the term “healthy” for food labeling purposes.
There was a public hearing on the issue in 2017, with many experts asking FDA to broaden the definition to apply to the full scope of what consumers are looking for in nutrition. More than 1,100 comments were left on a Federal Register docket. Weeks after tendering his resignation as FDA commissioner in March 2019, Scott Gottlieb said at an event that the definition would come out that summer.
In 2020, the USDA came out with new parameters for “healthy” products. However, this represents about 23% of what consumers eat; FDA regulates about 78% of the nation’s food supply.
A bit of progress toward a definition was implied in March when FDA announced it would conduct consumer studies to find a regulated, voluntary front-of-pack symbol to denote a “healthy” product. When the department announced the forthcoming studies, it said the “healthy” symbol could be used for any item that met its current definition of the term, though it makes sense for the revamped definition to come out at the same time, since less-than-healthy products including sugary cereals and pudding cups met the former definition’s standard.
This definition isn’t set in stone just yet. FDA is looking for comments on some of the nuances, like whether the guidelines for dairy and eggs — which can be naturally higher in saturated fats — make sense, or whether fruit and vegetable powder can count in calculating food group equivalents. The comment period will be 90 days.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional details.