The FDA Is Going To Change The Definition Of ‘Healthy’ Food

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Salmon can’t actually be marketed as “healthy” under current FDA guidelines, despite being recommended as a good source of protein in the government’s own most recent dietary guidelines. Neither can almonds or avocados. Pop-Tarts, on the other hand, are in the clear.

The labeling rules around “healthy” haven’t been revisited in over 20 years, even though our understanding of healthy eating habits has changed considerably since then.

That’s why the FDA announced this week that it will reevaluate the definition of “healthy,” seeking to bring labeling up-to-date with modern understanding and current science. Depending on the final rule, the change could have a huge impact on how food can be marketed to consumers.

Under the FDA’s current rule, food can only be labeled as healthy if it’s below a certain threshold in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Meanwhile, any regulation on sugar content is conspicuously absent. Although excess added sugar is now blamed as a contributor to major health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, that wasn’t much of a concern in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Healthy” or naw? CREDIT: Shutterstock
“Healthy” or naw? CREDIT: Shutterstock

In practice, that means that breakfast foods like Pop-Tarts and cereals, which are heavily processed and high in sugar — but also fortified with added nutrients — have an easier time passing the threshold as “healthy” than a one-ingredient, high-fat food like salmon filet.

According to a statement given to the Wall Street Journal, the agency will be seeking input from both the public and food experts as they work to update the official term.

Congress has been pushing the FDA to focus on food labeling. In the report accompanying its latest appropriations bill, the House Committee on Agriculture urged the regulator to update its rules around the use of the word “healthy” so that it would be “based upon significant scientific agreement.

Some food companies are also unhappy with the current labeling standards. KIND LLC, makers of fruit-and-nut bars, started a campaign last year to get the FDA to update its labeling to reflect the evolution of food science. The citizens petition was sparked by the FDA’s warning that KIND shouldn’t market its products as healthy because they contain a high amount of saturated fat. KIND pushed back, noting that the saturated fat in its bars comes from nuts.

How about these? CREDIT: Shutterstock
How about these? CREDIT: Shutterstock

On Tuesday, the FDA said it will allow KIND to continue to use the word “healthy” on their packaging under the current regulations — as long as it doesn’t constitute a nutrition claim.

“In our discussions with KIND, we understood the company’s position as wanting to use ‘healthy and tasty’ as part of its corporate philosophy, as opposed to using ‘healthy’ in the context of a nutrient content claim,” the agency said in a statement.

These kinds of fine legal lines, however, can be confusing to consumers.

As more and more Americans are trying to make eating decisions based on sound nutrition, marketers are proclaiming their foods as “antioxidant,” “whole-grain,” “heart-healthy,” “gluten-free,” and “natural” — nutrition buzzwords that are largely meaningless in terms of nutritional value, or, in the case of “healthy,” are 20 years out of date.

It’s an issue of more than semantics. A 2014 study showed that people are more likely to rate foods labeled with these buzzwords as healthy, overlooking other nutrition warnings on the packaging. In general, consumers are easily swayed by the way that food is marketed. Research has also shown that people are more likely to assume that products labeled with green labels are more nutritious, and that “fair-trade” chocolate is healthier — even though fair-trade is a label applied to the manufacturing process, not the nutritional quality of the product.

“Natural” has been a particular sticking point. Despite a growing demand for “natural” products, the term isn’t officially regulated. “Natural” labels have been slapped on everything from goldfish to low-calorie Skinnygirl Margaritas, only to be met with a rising tide of class-action lawsuits from disgruntled consumers — and their eager lawyers — alleging fraud. In response, the FDA is currently trying to decide how the term should be regulated.

The FDA’s long-standing policy has been that it doesn’t object to the term “natural” if nothing artificial or synthetic — like color additives — has been added to the food, according to Ted Craig, a Miami attorney who focuses on class action lawsuits, particularly in the area of deceptive business practices such as product mislabeling and false advertising.

“But what you have to understand is it’s a matter of degree. All food that’s no longer in the ground has been processed in some way,” he told ThinkProgress over the phone.

Are these healthy? CREDIT: Shutterstock
Are these healthy? CREDIT: Shutterstock

Most of the comments the FDA has received are from individuals worried about additives, preservatives, antibiotic use in animals and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and chemicals. At present, a natural label doesn’t actually mean anything with regards to these concerns. According to independent product testing, the majority of products labeled “natural” actually contain GMOs. And, nearly all packaged foods contain preservatives by necessity.

If the FDA does come up with an official rule for “natural,” it’ll be the first time it has a set meaning. However, that could still be years away — as could the final rule on the updated meaning of “healthy.”

Right now, the FDA is just starting the process, which will probably start with formal proposal to update the definition of “healthy,” followed by a comment period, a proposed rule, another comment period, and then the final rule. Even then, there will be an implementation period, giving food makers time to comply by either shifting their food to be officially “healthy” or changing their packaging.

The process will likely take years — it took the FDA six years to settle on a final rule for gluten-free labeling — but yesterday’s announcement marks an important first step.