The FDA Wants to Redefine What “Healthy” Actually Means

updated May 30, 2019
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(Image credit: Christine Han)

The word “healthy” is as subjective as it gets — one man’s trash is another man’s nutritious. It’s not just salad, people! So when consumers see the word slapped on packaging, they should meet it with a level of skepticism, as current regulations for the term are relatively confusing. It’s a word that has no consistent meaning.

But the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) wants to change this. The agency is working to define and modernize the word healthy as it relates to food packaging.

What Is the FDA Doing?

Last week the FDA held an all-day public meeting in Maryland to discuss what the term healthy means. In attendance were consumers, nutritionists, and food company lobbyist groups, reports Stat News.

“FDA has started a public process to redefine the ‘healthy’ nutrient content claim for food labeling,” says the FDA on its website. “Redefining ‘healthy’ is part of an overall plan to provide consumers with information and tools to enable them to easily and quickly make food choices consistent with public health recommendations and to encourage the development of healthier foods by the industry.”

(Image credit: Christine Han)

What Are the FDA’s Current Regulations?

Currently, the FDA’s regulations for using the word “healthy” on packaging — which were established in 1993 — are as follows:

  • Not low in total fat, but have a fat profile makeup of predominantly mono and polyunsaturated fats.
  • OR contain at least 10 percent of the Daily Value (DV) per reference amount customarily consumed (RACC) of potassium or vitamin D.

The confusion surrounding the term came to light in 2015 when the FDA decided that KIND bars cannot use the word on their packaging. The products from the brand allegedly defied existing regulation, which mandates a product contain 1 gram or less of saturated fat in order to call itself healthy. The snack food company made its case and the FDA reversed its stance last year.

What’s the Problem with the Current Definition?

There is a clear disconnect with how the term is defined, as foods with more than 3 grams of fat per serving cannot be labeled as “healthy,” according to the FDA. This restriction leaves out nuts, fatty fish, and avocado — all foods considered to be rich in healthful fats and recommended by current dietary guidelines.

Douglas Balentine, director of the FDA’s Office of Nutrition and Food Labeling, wrote in a blog post, “As our understanding about nutrition has evolved, we need to make sure the definition for the ‘healthy’ labeling claim stays up to date. For instance, the most recent public health recommendations now focus on type of fat, rather than amount of fat.

“They focus on added sugars, which consumers will see on the new Nutrition Facts label. And they focus on nutrients that consumers aren’t getting enough of, like vitamin D and potassium. By updating the definition, we hope more companies will use the “healthy” claim as the basis for new product innovation and reformulation, providing consumers with a greater variety of ‘healthy’ choices in the marketplace.”

So, yeah. Healthy. What does it mean? What would you like to see it mean when it comes to packaging and the FDA?