The FDA Is Revisiting Its Definition of ‘Healthy’ Food—Here Are the Proposed Changes

The FDA Is Revisiting Its Definition of ‘Healthy’ Food—Here Are the Proposed Changes

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The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced Wednesday that it is proposing changes to its definition of “healthy.” The FDA’s definition of healthy defines criteria for when foods can use the word on their packaging, and has been a hotly debated topic in the food world for years.

According to the FDA, the proposed changes “would align the definition of the ‘healthy’ claim with current nutrition science.” The FDA said in a news release that more than 80% of Americans aren’t eating enough fruits, vegetables, and dairy. At the same time, most people are having too much added sugar, saturated fat, and sodium. The proposed changes, the FDA says, will try to help people improve their nutrition and dietary patterns “to help reduce the burden of chronic disease and advance health equity.”

“Healthy food can lower our risk for chronic disease,” said Xavier Becerra, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). “But too many people may not know what constitutes healthy food. FDA’s move will help educate more Americans to improve health outcomes, tackle health disparities and save lives.”

The proposed rule would update the “healthy” definition to look at how nutrients in different food groups work to create healthy eating patterns and improve overall health. More foods would be part of the healthy eating pattern under the proposed definition, including nuts and seeds, fish like salmon that’s higher in fat, certain oils, and water.

“It's about time,” says Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., author of The Little Book of Game-Changers. “This has been a long time coming.”

KIND Snacks, which has pushed for a change to the FDA’s definition of “healthy” for years and created a Citizen’s Petition in 2015, also applauded the move. “When we first petitioned the FDA in 2015, we sought to correct outdated regulations and advocate for wholesome, nutrient-dense foods, such as almonds and avocados, and we're thrilled that these foods are finally being recognized as an important part of our diet,” Daniel Lubetzky, founder and chief impact officer at KIND, said in a statement.

It’s a little confusing that there would be debate about what, exactly, is “healthy,” but experts say it's more complicated than many people realize. Here’s what you need to know.

What is healthy under the new proposed definition?

The FDA’s proposed definition would require foods to meet the following criteria in order to use the term “healthy” on a product label:

  • Contain a certain meaningful amount of food from at least one of the food groups or subgroups recommended by the Dietary Guidelines, like fruits, vegetables, and dairy.

  • Follow specific limits for certain nutrients, like saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. (The threshold for the limits is based on a percent of the Daily Value (DV) for the nutrient and varies by the food and food group.) The limit for sodium is 10% of the DV per serving.

An example: Under the new definition, a cereal would have to contain ¾ ounces of whole grains and have no more than 1 gram of saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium, and 2.5 grams of added sugars to be defined as “healthy.”

What nutritionists think

Nutritionists agree that this change is important—and complicated. “The term ‘healthy’ is very situational,” says Gina Keatley, a certified dietitian nutritionist practicing in New York City. “What is going to be healthy for an athlete preparing for a marathon or to ride a century is going to be different from an elderly individual with uncontrolled diabetes and obesity.”

Keri Gans, M.S., R.D., author of The Small Change Diet, says the change is “long overdue,” noting that “as it stands now, many foods with nutritional benefits—for example heart healthy monounsaturated fats found in many foods, such as nuts, seeds and avocado—were not deemed eligible to be called healthy.”

Cording calls the updated definition “well-intentioned.”

“The goal to help people eat more vegetables, fruit, less sugar, less saturated fat, and sodium is a good one,” she continues. ‘What's tricky is that different types of foods might fit one of those categories but not others. It’s not a one size fits all thing.”

The FDA’s definition of healthy food also “promotes the creation of foods rather than using whole foods,” Keatley says, “since these whole foods are likely missing one or more of the required nutrients.”

The term “healthy” is also “subjective,” points out Beth Warren, R.D., founder of Beth Warren Nutrition and author of Secrets of a Kosher Girl. “It is subjective to a person’s own interpretation vs. a set of uniform standards and benchmarks,” she says. “Healthy can mean something without chemicals or preservatives, something that benefits a person’s health, or someone’s own interpretation of what healthy means.”

How to eat healthy

Overall, experts stress that this is largely about a definition used on processed—not whole—foods.

“If an individual wants to eat healthier, they should simply focus more on what they could add to their diet, such as fruits, veggies, legumes, 100% whole grains, heart-healthy fats, and ample protein, leaving less room to worry about what they should limit,” Gans says.

“A label is just a piece of paper,” Cording says. Still, if you want to eat healthier, she recommends focusing on nutrient-dense, whole foods while limiting added sugars. “I recommend an 85/15 approach to healthy food, where the majority of foods are nourishing and provide what you need, but there’s a little room for pleasure,” she says. “A label is just one thing to consider.”

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