The growing divide between what’s considered healthy food and what can legally be labeled as healthy is on its way to reconciling.
In response to pressure from the health community, elected officials and the public, the Food and Drug Administration is taking steps to redefine the term “healthy” as it’s used on food labels, the agency confirmed Tuesday.
Current regulations, crafted more than 20 years ago during the advent of low-fat diets, allow products like fat-free pudding cups and sugary cereal to be labeled as healthy, but not whole foods such as nuts, avocados and salmon, which have come to be considered sources of nutritious fats. The government’s current MyPlate guidelines recommend including nuts, seeds and fish as part of a balanced diet – making decades-old nutrition labeling guidelines confusing.
“In light of evolving nutrition research … we believe now is an opportune time to reevaluate regulations concerning nutrient content claims, generally, including the term ‘healthy,’” says FDA spokeswoman Lauren Kotwicki.
The FDA will ask the public to weigh in on how healthy should be defined given the modern understanding of nutrition and a well-rounded diet, which as some note, is a big deal.
“It’s pretty huge,” says David Katz, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. “They recognize this is really a problem for public health nutrition. It was never intended to say ‘don’t eat almonds.’ But that effectively is what it’s saying in this instance.”
Katz is referring to a warning letter the FDA sent to the snack company Kind last year. The letter said Kind’s fruit and nut bars couldn’t claim to be healthy due to their amount of saturated fat, which primarily came from almonds, the main ingredient in the bars. While Kind removed the term from its labels, it filed a citizen petition with the FDA in December, asking the agency to update its labeling requirements in light of new dietary recommendations. Katz served as a nutrition adviser to Kind over the past year.
Currently, companies can use the term “healthy” as a nutrient content claim if the food fits certain criteria for levels of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and sugar. Generally, snacks like Kind’s bars can’t have more than 3 grams of fat and 1 gram of saturated fat per serving.
The company got word last month that it would be allowed to continue using the phrase “healthy and tasty” on its bars, because the FDA concluded that it was not a nutrient content claim, according to emails obtained by USA TODAY. Kind is considering whether it will put the term back on its bars, which could be a costly move.
“We’re not in a hurry to do it,” says CEO Daniel Lubetzsky, adding that the fact that the FDA is reconsidering how healthy is defined is more significant than what Kind puts on its packaging. “It’s very energizing to feel that our voices were heard, and the FDA recognizes that the regulation didn’t really make sense.”
Kotwicki notes that the FDA isn’t reconsidering how healthy is used because of Kind, but a variety of factors including upcoming new rules on the Nutrition Facts panel, new nutrition research and the citizen petition, which received backing in February from four Democratic senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both of Oregon; Cory Booker of New Jersey and Chuck Schumer of New York.
On the FDA’s part, re-evaluating the term shows the evolving understanding of nutrition in the U.S., a conversation that’s become more focused on overall health and well-being than specific nutrient levels, Katz says.
“The world of nutrition is increasingly saying, enough with nutrients let’s talk about food,” he says. “An avocado is extremely high in fat but it’s a really nutritious food.”