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The FDA’s rotten definition of “healthy” food is finally being tossed

The FDA’s rotten definition of “healthy” food is finally being tossed

The US Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday proposed a long-awaited revision to the definition of the term “healthy” on food packaging — finally scrapping the baffling criteria from the 1990s that made healthy foods like nuts, salmon, avocados, olive oil and even water not eligible for the label.

The new definition is not immune to criticism, and Americans are likely to continue to face uncertainty about healthy food choices when strolling through grocery stores. But the proposed update — which coincides with this week̵[ads1]7;s White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health and a national strategy to improve American nutrition and reduce hunger — is a definite improvement.

Under the current criteria, established in 1994, the FDA allows food manufacturers to label their products as “healthy” based on myopic maximums and minimums of specific nutrients. This means that “healthy” foods have universal maximum values ​​for saturated fat, total fat, cholesterol and sodium, and are also required to provide at least 10 percent of the daily value for one or more of the following nutrients: vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein and fibre.

Under this rule, foods high in added sugar — such as low-fat yogurt or sugary breakfast cereals aimed at children — are eligible for a “healthy” label because they meet the other qualifications. The same goes for some nutritionally questionable white breads. Yet whole foods such as avocados or currently recommended meats such as salmon are ineligible due to fat content – ​​in the face of current, evidence-backed healthiness of plant-based foods. And even ordinary water or ordinary carbonated water cannot be labeled as “healthy”.

New rule

The absurdity of this definition made headlines in 2015 when the FDA sent a warning letter to the manufacturer of Kind bars saying they could not apply the term “healthy” to their nut-based bars because they had too much saturated fat. Nuts and seeds alone are generally not eligible for the “healthy” label under the current rule. The company pushed back, and in 2016 the FDA reversed course and said it planned to update the definition — which brings us to the proposed update this week.

Under the FDA’s proposed rule — which is still subject to change — the agency now takes a more holistic approach to evaluating foods, saying foods can be labeled as healthy if they:

  • Contains some meaningful amount of food from at least one of the food groups or subgroups (eg, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, etc.) recommended by the Dietary Guidelines.
  • Adhere to specific limits on certain nutrients, such as saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar.

Importantly, for this last point, the nutrient limit thresholds will vary based on the type of food or food group a product contains – i.e. an olive oil-based product has a higher limit for saturated fat than vegetable products, which have a lower limit for added sugar than grain-based foods. The FDA offered here a helpful table of the proposed limits for various food groups.

The FDA also provided an example of a cereal that would meet the new “healthy” definition: it would “need to contain ¾ ounce of whole grains and contain no more than 1 gram of saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium and 2.5 grams of added sugar.”

The FDA hopes the change will help consumers make better food choices at the grocery store and spur food manufacturers to adjust their products to fit the new definition.

The revision is “an important step toward achieving a number of nutrition-related priorities, which include providing consumers with information to choose healthier diets and establish healthy eating habits early,” FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said in a statement. “It could also result in a healthier food supply.”

Needed change

Such nutrition-related goals are more important than ever. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported data showing that the number of states with high rates of adult obesity — defined as 35 percent of adults or more — has more than doubled since 2018. Nineteen states and two territories now have high rates. Childhood obesity has also risen amid the pandemic. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year, the proportion of 5- to 11-year-olds with “overweight” or “obesity” rose from 36.2 percent the year before the pandemic hit to 45.7 percent by January 2021.

Obesity at any age can set people up for serious health conditions, such as high blood pressure, sleep apnea, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, serious outcomes from COVID-19 and poor mental health. The three most important causes of death in 2020 were heart disease, cancer and COVID-19.

Of course, obesity is a complex, multifactorial health condition, and diet is only one part of it. But there is plenty of data to suggest that people in the US are not eating well – and the typical American diet is fueling chronic health problems. The FDA notes that 75 percent of Americans have diets low in fruits, vegetables, and dairy; 77 percent consume too much saturated fat; 63 percent eat too much added sugar; and as much as 90 percent exceed the limit for sodium.

The FDA’s new proposed definition of “healthy” certainly won’t solve these problems right away. Some health advocates and experts say that it can have minimal effects, and that the package labeling that warns about unhealthy content – ​​with things like red light symbols – can be more effective than labeling ‘healthy’ foods. But the update is a clear improvement from the current definition of “healthy,” which is not aligned with evidence-based dietary recommendations.

Speaking to The Washington Post, Kind CEO Russell Stokes said the company celebrated the proposed update. “A rule that reflects current nutrition science and dietary guidelines for Americans is a win for public health — and it’s a win for all of us.”

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