Health & Science
“Healthy” Food: FDA to Redefine the Term on Food Labels
For decades, Americans have been grappling with what it means to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet as more information regarding our industrial food system comes to light. Now, it seems the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has jumped on the bandwagon, revisiting food labels and the definition of “healthy” in an effort to redefine an outdated version.
Public health concerns over misleading food labels and nutrient content claims have increased rapidly, particularly because of the growing obesity epidemic in America. While it is sure to be a lengthy and laborious process, the FDA is seeking public comments to help shape the new definition of “healthy.” The original definition of “healthy” was created decades ago in the mid-1990’s. As nutrition science has evolved, food labels and FDA-regulated definitions of nutrient content claims have been exceedingly slow to catch up.
Food Labels and Nutrient Content Claims
The FDA is responsible for ensuring that all food sold in the U.S. is safe and properly labeled, whether food is produced domestically or in foreign countries. The federal laws governing food products are primarily the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. The FD&C Act is a set of laws passed by Congress in 1938 to give the FDA oversight in ensuring the safety of food, drugs, and cosmetics. These laws regulate many aspects of the food industry, including food additives, food coloring, and even bottled water.
The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act applies to labels on most consumer products. Passed under President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, it requires a label to state: (1) the identity of the product; (2) name and place of business of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor; and (3) the net quantity of contents. The Act applies to products considered “consumer commodities” to prevent unfair or deceptive packaging and labeling.
The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), however, amended the FD&C Act and gave the FDA explicit authority to require food labeling on most food packages and nutrients listed on the nutrition label. The NLEA was passed in 1990 by President George H. W. Bush. Moreover, the NLEA requires that all nutrient content claims, like “low fat” or “high fiber,” comply with the FDA’s regulations. The NLEA does not apply to food served or sold in restaurants, nor does it apply to meat or poultry products, which are regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture. The FDA proposed a variety of new amendments and regulations, with a few goals in mind: clearing up any sort of confusion surrounding nutrition and food labels, assisting consumers in choosing healthier products, and finally, giving food companies an incentive to improve nutritional qualities of their products.
Nutrient content claims can be found plastered all over food products and packages. Under the NLEA, the FDA regulates the definitions of “free,” “low,” “light,” “reduced,” “less,” “high,” and many more. In developing the criteria for each of the claims, the FDA looked to dietary recommendations for each nutrient, analytical methods, distribution and abundance of particular nutrients in the food supply, and other considerations.
The push to change the FDA’s definition of “healthy” came originally from the makers of Kind bars, which are granola bars containing many fruits and nuts. The product is currently marketed as “healthy and tasty.” The problem, however, is that the amount of fat contained in the bars is far too high to comply with the FDA’s low-fat restrictions on healthy food. In May of 2016, the company challenged the status quo when the FDA complained that the label “healthy” on Kind bars was improper based on the current definition.
Currently, if a food product is to be labeled “healthy,” the product must be very low in fat according to the regulations. Essentially, it is a nutrient content claim, meaning the term can only be used on a product if it has certain nutritional qualities based on attributes like levels of fat and sodium. While the rules themselves are highly complex, it boils down to the fact that a snack food, for example, can have no more than three grams of fat per serving to be considered “healthy.” It also must contain at least ten percent of the recommended daily value for vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein, or fiber per RACC (Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed). The definition differs for individual foods, seafood/game meat, and a meal or main dish.
Thus, under the current definition, nuts–which have long been known to be a high-fat food–cannot qualify as “healthy” under the current FDA regulations. While nuts are high-calorie, they are full of healthy fats that are known to be good for preventing cardiovascular disease, maintaining mental health, and are now seen as an ideal source of protein.
The term “healthy” was originally defined in 1994, at the height of the fat-free craze. Americans started replacing high-fat foods with more processed foods that were full of refined sugar, but still touted as healthy because they were “low-fat.” It was difficult to navigate a grocery store aisle without seeing “low-fat” labels plastered proudly on a variety of products, even ones that a consumer would not even think to have a high-fat content. We now know that consuming massive quantities of other food products with additives, like sugar, has far more negative consequences than eating plant-based food sources teeming with healthy fats.
The Future of “Healthy
Critics of the current definition of “healthy” have valid points. Under the current regulations, Frosted Flakes may be labeled “healthy” as the product is low-fat and fortified with vitamins, which is counterintuitive to what Americans know to be healthy food choices. While the FDA is determining how best to redefine “healthy,” it has stated it will exercise discretion in how it enforces the current rules. Thus, the agency will not be taking action against food manufacturers, like Kind, who produce foods that don’t meet the exact definition, but are still low in total fat and contain at least ten percent of the recommended vitamin D and potassium. The FDA issued guidance in September to reflect its newfound discretion, as prior public participation was not deemed feasible or appropriate.
Dietary guidelines have been more quickly catching up to changing nutritional science. Earlier this year, the dietary guidelines for 2015-2020 and the Nutrition Facts label were updated to recommend that people eat food rich in healthful fats. Over the next few years, nutrition labels will be updated to more accurately and clearly reflect a serving size, as well as how much added sugar is in a particular product. After decades of nutrition labels remaining mostly the same, this is a significant step in addressing the obesity epidemic in the U.S., particularly since many citizens rely on nutrition labels to provide them with reliable information. A governmental study showed that 77 percent of American adults say they read labels on food packaging when they shop.
When imagining how the new definition of “healthy” could unfold, it is likely there will be a focus on sugar. Current evidence demonstrates a link between excessive sugar consumption and obesity. Additionally, the new definition will likely redefine fat intake, particularly encouraging responsible consumption of healthy fats from plants and omega-3 sources, like fish.
These proposed changes clearly show the FDA is finally attempting to follow significant nutrition science breakthroughs. Ideally, people would not need food labels to tell them how to eat more healthfully and would simply make smarter food choices, like limiting processed foods and eating loads of fruits and vegetables. Famed nutrition scientist Marion Nestle argues against food labels, stating that companies utilize them to make misleading claims about their products.
Currently, many Americans still rely heavily on food labels to provide them with information about how to eat more healthfully. For now, nutrition labels and dietary guidelines are here to stay, particularly as this country attempts to combat a widespread obesity epidemic. Moreover, “healthy” isn’t the only label that may receive a significant overhaul; the FDA is currently reviewing giving “natural“a legal definition after receiving roughly 7,600 comments on the term.
The public has the ability to comment on the FDA’s website right now to help shape the new definition of “healthy” for the future. The changes may not be implemented for some time, but having a concrete voice in the FDA’s future rules and definitions is an important thing to consider. The comment period started on September 28, and will remain open for the time being. You may submit electronic comments and information to the Regulations.gov website or mail in written comments to the address listed on the FDA’s website.