With so many food options, it’s helpful to have information on food packaging that can help you make healthy choices.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration suggests updating its definition of the word “healthy.” This includes the nutritional standards a product must meet to place a “healthy” claim on the packaging. The FDA is also conducting a search for a symbol that represents the claim that it is “healthy.” The claim, along with a possible symbol on the front of the pack, will be a quick cue to enable you to get information to identify foods that will help you build healthy dietary patterns.

More than 80% of people in the United States do not eat enough vegetables, fruits, and dairy products, according to Dietary Guidelines for America, 2020-2025. Most people consume a lot of added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium. This is concerning because unhealthy dietary patterns can increase the risk of developing some of the most common chronic diseases.

You don’t have to wait for a new definition of a “healthy” claim or a code to be more aware of your food choices. “You can get started now,” says Susan Mayne, PhD, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

“To make healthy food choices for you and your family, aim to eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy, protein foods, and healthy oils — such as olives and canola,” says Dr. Mayne. Try to eat and drink less foods and drinks that are high in saturated fat, sodium or added sugars.

Dr. Mayne adds that you can also check the Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods for information on specific nutrients and to compare food products. By looking at the percentage Daily Value, abbreviated as %DV, of different nutrients, you can choose foods with more nutrients you want to get more of and fewer nutrients you may want to limit.

Updated definition of “healthy” on food packaging

The current definition of “healthy” as a nutrient content claim was put on food packaging in 1994. It was based on nutrition science and federal dietary guidelines at the time. The definition focused on individual nutrients—such as saturated fat, total fat, cholesterol, and sodium, along with some vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein—in maximum amounts for some and small amounts for others.

Since that time, federal dietary guidelines and the nutrition science behind them have evolved. Today, we have a greater understanding of dietary patterns and their effects on health, and we realize that people tend to build their diets around foods, which are made up of a variety of nutrients, rather than just individual nutrients.

To comply with the latest nutritional science and federal dietary guidelines, the FDA is proposing an updated definition of a “healthy” claim for use in food packaging, including:

  • Food should contain a certain amount of a food group such as fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins and dairy products.
  • Food can’t contain a lot of saturated fat, sodium, or added sugars.

The proposed rule is also consistent with recent changes to the Nutrition Facts label. For example, the Nutrition Facts label must now advertise added sugars to help people maintain healthy eating practices.

How would the proposed “healthy” definition work?

Here are some findings of the proposed new definition of a “healthy” claim.

  • Foods such as salmon, avocado and olive oil, which under current regulations do not qualify to use the “healthy” claim, would qualify under the proposed definition. Foods such as sweetened cereal and yogurt that contain more than the allowed amount of added sugars are no longer eligible.
  • Ordinary, non-carbonated water and carbonated water can also be called “healthy”. Under current regulations, water cannot be described as “healthy”.

As a shopper, all you have to do is look for a “healthy” claim — or variations such as “healthier” and “healthier” — on a food package to know you’re buying something that meets the FDA’s definition of “healthy.” “

What are the potential benefits?

Heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, and overweight and obesity are among the leading causes of death and disability in the United States, and minority groups are at greater risk for many of these diseases. For example, while more than 4 in 10 American adults have high blood pressure, that number rises to nearly 6 in 10 for non-Hispanic black adults.

Updating the definition of “healthy” is a step toward providing the public with information that can help them make food choices that can help reduce diet-related chronic diseases and promote health equity. Additionally, updating the “healthy” definition could lead to more healthy foods on the market if some manufacturers choose to reformulate or produce products that conform to the new definition.

The FDA wants to hear from you

If you would like to share your thoughts on the proposed rule, you may submit feedback to the Food and Drug Administration within 90 days after publication in the Federal Register. Send email comments to Submit written comments to Dockets Administration Personnel (HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, rm. 1061, Rockville, MD 20852. All comments must be identified with agenda number FDA-2016-D-2335.

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