The Food and Drug Administration has proposed a new definition of what constitutes a “healthy” food, taking a more holistic look at nutrition and food groups rather than focusing only on a few vitamins, minerals, and nutrients.
The proposal sparked a mixed response from nutritionists, the food industry and public health officials, highlighting the thorny task of regulating something as personal as an individual diet.
Nutrition science has evolved significantly since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration defined “health” in 1994—and so has the development of the prevalence of obesity and diet-related diseases.
Because food packaging can have a significant impact on both consumers and food manufacturers, the Food and Drug Administration believes that a “healthy” label will lead to better products and eating habits.
“It makes sense that they decided to update the definition and make it compatible with science,” said Marilyn Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health at the University of Connecticut. “But when you just focus on health and keep silent about the less healthy people, you don’t have the impact that you could have if you really plugged the entire spectrum.”
Nutrition experts voice doubts
The FDA’s ultimate goal is to reduce the prevalence of diseases that can result from poor diets, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer, as well as obesity.
Most Americans eat far more sodium than recommended — largely from processed foods — while 80 percent of Americans don’t eat enough fruit and 90 percent don’t eat enough vegetables, the agency said.
Thus, if the FDA’s goal is to make Americans healthier, some nutritionists say the updated definition misses the goal.
“Most of these foods are packaged foods and processed foods that will get this label,” said Joanne Slavin, a nutritionist and professor at the University of Minnesota. “It’s putting a lot of effort into something that won’t lead to increased consumption of fruits and vegetables.”
For nearly 30 years, Food and Drug Administration requirements for products that can carry a “healthy” label have focused on increasing the intake of certain nutrients while restricting others. The agency says the explanation is “outdated”.
The proposed definition relates to some nutrient restrictions that deny products high in sodium, saturated fat and added sugar to be considered healthy. But it places great emphasis on encouraging servings of meals from different food groups and nutrient-dense foods rather than minimal vitamin C.
This is in line with the latest Dietary Guidelines, which are updated every five years and were last released in 2020.
“Good nutrition does not come from eating individual nutrients…but from foods with their combination of different nutrients working together,” says the definition proposed by the Food and Drug Administration. “Claims about food packaging such as ‘healthy’ can provide quick signals for consumers… to choose foods that can help build healthier diets.”
Some of the big winners, if the proposed “healthy” definition is approved, would be eggs, seafood, nuts and seeds. It is now understood that the fat content of those foods is beneficial, or at least harmless, given the other nutrients they provide.
“This proposed definition is more good news for egg lovers because it confirms the science that shows eggs are a comprehensive nutrient powerhouse,” Emily Metz, president of the American Egg Council, said in a statement.
Currently, only 5 percent of all packaged foods use the term “healthy” on their labels, although the Food and Drug Administration says about 14 percent can use the current definition. The agency hopes to incentivize food manufacturers to reformulate products to meet the new definition and encourage those who already meet them to use the label.
“This definition has been in progress for six years and will go a long way toward providing clarity for businesses that wish to put additional information on their packages to support consumer choices,” FMI, the food industry association, said in a statement.
But Slavin and others say it primarily benefits big food makers who can afford to update formulas and labels.
“It’s a huge economic burden on small producers and entrepreneurs,” Slavin said. “It really hurts the innovators and the people we want to sell more renewable and sustainable fruits, vegetables and grain products.”
In addition to the “healthy” update, the Biden administration is also looking into adding “star ratings” or “traffic lights” to packaged foods to indicate nutritional content.
In order to make a real impact in eating habits, Schwartz said, foods high in saturated fat, sodium and added sugar should carry easy-to-understand labels that state it.
“It makes a difference – people will change what they choose,” she said.
The Consumer Brands Association says such front-end labeling should remain voluntary or incentive-based.
The “healthy” update began in 2015 when the Food and Drug Administration asked the type bar manufacturer to stop labeling their product as healthy due to the fat content of the product’s nuts; Reply type with a petition to change the definition. The process was halted and recently revived as part of the White House Food and Nutrition Conference in September.
Slavin stresses that the new definition will remain “misleading” and could lead to lawsuits, because what is healthy for the general population may not apply to certain groups or individuals.
“The nutritional facts that are already there (in the back) are helpful, but putting judgmental things up front is not good,” she said. “For us, overlooking what’s healthy for an overnourished population doesn’t change the rules at all.”
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