The FDA Is Reconsidering What ‘Healthy’ Means

The agency is accepting public comments as it begins the process of redefining the labeling term.
Kind snack bars. (Photo: Mike Mozart/Flickr)
Sep 28, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

In conversations about food and well-being, the term “healthy” gets thrown around a lot. We’re told to eat a healthy diet, we’re told which foods are healthy, and at the grocery store and in commercials, we see a host of products that are marketed as “healthy,” “healthful,” or other permutations of the word. But what, exactly, does “healthy” mean? For consumers, it’s a definition that is probably a bit squishy—but an entity like the Food and Drug Administration can only develop regulations on the back of strictly defined terms, and “healthy” is no exception.

According to the agency, a food can be called “healthy” if it contains a least 10 percent of the daily recommended value for one key nutrient—vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, protein, or fiber—and is low in sodium, cholesterol, and overall and saturated fat. That is all likely to change, however, as the FDA opened a public comment period on Tuesday asking for input on a new definition of “healthy.” It’s a change that is, in a way, a continuation of the significant changes the federal government has announced this year—from the publication of new dietary guidelines to the announcement of new standards for the nutrition facts panel—but the FDA acknowledges that a public petition filed last December by the snack maker Kind helped spur the action it is undertaking.

The petition, which is quoted extensively in the request for comment published on Monday, noted that under the current definition, “FDA limits the ability of food producers to tell consumers that products containing certain foods—such as nuts, whole grains, seafood, fruits, and vegetables—are healthy, even though they are currently recommended as key components of a healthful diet.” It’s an issue that Kind knows well: The FDA told the company in 2015 that it could not say its nut-heavy snack bars and other products were “healthy.”

While the agency later made an exception and said that Kind could continue to use “healthy” labeling language, what might have otherwise been a regulatory spat that received little notice became part of a larger public debate. If nutritionists and public health experts have been extolling the virtues of “good” fats such as olive oil, avocado, and, yes, almonds, then why shouldn’t Kind be allowed to note as much on its labels?

Now, as it reconsiders “healthy,” the agency is continuing its efforts to catch up with that contemporary understanding of the role of fat in diets. “We had a shift in the dietary guidelines acknowledging healthy fats, so FDA is saying, ‘OK, now we want to make sure that we’re in line with those guidelines’ ” when it comes to labeling language, said Michele Simon, a public health lawyer and food-industry critic who recently started the Plant Based Foods Association, a lobbying group.

But if the question of fat helped to bring the FDA to consider what is or isn’t “healthy,” and it is likely that the total fat level will be reduced to allow foods such as salmon, avocado, and nut-based snack bars to be deemed healthy, other issues are likely to come up in the public comment period and whatever guidance the agency lands on. As Justin Mervis, Kind’s head of regulatory affairs, said, “In changing the nutrition facts panel and adding certain lines for [added] sugar and other things—and even changing the recommended daily value of certain nutrients—that then creates a domino effect,” requiring changes to the definition of what is healthy.

Sugar is likely to be considered along with fat. Mervis said, “It would be shocking if they didn’t, considering all of the emphasis they have put on it.” The agency has undertaken efforts to make it easier for consumers to understand how much added sugar they are consuming, via a new line on the nutrition facts label, and the new dietary guidelines (released jointly by USDA and the Department of Heatlth and Human Services) recommend that people cut back on sugar consumption. While it has taken a public role in the conversation about “healthy” food labels, Kind has been criticized for the amount of sugar contained in some of its products—a criticism it has responded to with efforts to reduce the amount of added sugar in its snacks and, via its website, to disclose how much is in its products.

Simon said that just as they resisted the new line for “added sugars” on the nutrition facts panel, big food companies will likely resist any limits on sugar included in the new “healthy” definition. But, generally speaking, she thinks the process should be rather straightforward. “Compared to any attempt to define ‘natural,’ I don’t think this one is going to be that hard,” she said. “They’re taking this on to relax what was an onerous requirement before with regards to fat. I don’t see it as controversial necessarily.”

If you have thoughts about consumers’ understanding of the meaning of the term “healthy” as it relates to food, or consumers’ expectations of foods that carry a “healthy” claim, you can submit a public comment through the FDA’s website.