The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is updating the definition of health labels and designing new labels. The agency says this will help enable people to make better decisions. But not all nutritionists are convinced.
Joanna Summers, host:
What makes food healthy? It’s a complex question, but the Food and Drug Administration aims to help answer it with a new system for labeling food packaging. The last time the agency defined health was in 1994. That was at the height of the fat-free diet boom. Join NPR’s Alison Aubrey now to talk about how the idea of health is changing. Hello.
Alison Aubrey, Belin: Hey, Joanna – Nice to be here.
Summer: So, Alison, tell us about these proposed changes.
Aubrey: Well, there are really two things going on here. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is updating its working definition of health as it relates to food labeling, and they are developing a new health symbol or symbol for food packages. The goal is really for the packaging to reflect current nutrition science, which has really evolved a lot over the past 25 years. So, you know, things that passed as healthy or qualified for a health claim in 1994 — like white bread, highly sweetened yogurt or sugary cereals — just because they were low in fat wouldn’t be able to get a health claim on packaging.
And I would say that the FDA’s guidance on this, you know, is timely. The fat-free boom is long gone. It is widely known that some fats are good for us. We need them. So we created a new health code for foods like avocados, nuts and seeds, and fatty fish like salmon and olive oil. You know, health conscious people might listen to this and say it’s time.
Summer: Well, why is this happening now?
Aubrey: You know, the change comes at a time when the Biden administration has prioritized the goal of improving Americans’ diets. This gives that diet-related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, are the leading cause of death. This was a huge focus at the White House food conference last week, and the labeling initiative is really part of the new administration’s strategy announced at the conference. I would say it’s also a moment that, culturally, it’s become a bit difficult to talk about food and diet, given the undoing of diet culture, body shaming, and the real guilt and shame that people can feel in connection with body image.
Summer: Yes, and those are all really important concerns. But it all seems to me, Alison, incredibly complicated.
Aubrey: Yes. You know, a lot of healthcare providers and public health experts say it’s really important at this time to recognize and validate these concerns, while, at the same time, helping people understand that our diet – what we eat – plays a role. An important role in the prevention or promotion of chronic diseases.
Summer: Given how hard and sharp all this is, how is the Food and Drug Administration dealing with this?
Aubrey: Well, the FDA is really a regulatory agency, and its approach is to sort of take the science and listen to all the stakeholders, they like to say, including the food industry — the companies that market the foods we eat. Where the agency settled on this is that the health token can help empower people with useful information. I spoke to Susan Mayne. She is director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the Food and Drug Administration.
Susan Mayne: Most consumers will make decisions within a few seconds about whether or not to buy a product. So having something, like, healthy that can be on top of the pack, can help consumers make those quick decisions.
Summer: So is there a consensus among nutrition and health experts that this will help?
Aubrey: I think opinions are mixed. On the plus side, if someone chooses between two packaged foods, and one of them contains less salt, less sugar, and more healthy fats—eligible for a health token—that could be beneficial. But there are limits to giving the green light to foods on packages. I mean, many healthy foods don’t come in packages. Each time we are told to eat more whole foods – more fruits and vegetables – there is criticism that a health icon may be missing the point. I spoke to Marion Nestle. She is Professor Emeritus of Nutrition at New York University.
Marion Nestle: I don’t think we need health claims about food products at all. It is not about health. It is about marketing products. If you really want to eat healthy food, you will eat real food. You will not eat products with labels.
AUBREY: I think what you take is not shared by everyone, but it shows how difficult it is to reduce healthy eating to a simple code. And in fact, to promote healthy eating patterns, we’ll probably need a whole bunch of broader initiatives — you know, nutrition education, cooking classes, and the integration of food and nutrition into the health care system.
Summer: This is NPR’s Alison Aubrey. Thank you.
Aubrey: Thank you, Joanna.
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