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Healthy skepticism about the FDA’s new “healthy” food label definition

By Amanda Benson
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Have you ever walked through the grocery store and been confused by what you see on food labels? From “free-range or cage free” eggs and “grass-fed or pasture-raised” meat, to “natural”, “no hormones”, “GMO-free”, “whole wheat” and “healthy…of course we’re overwhelmed! Many of these terms, while sounding official and scientific, are actually just marketing terms used by food manufacturers to sell products. While each of these claims, many of which are misleading, could be the focus of their own articles (and you definitely should read more about them!), the latest news in the food world has to do with the Food & Drug Administration’s proposed updates to the definition of “healthy” as it pertains to food labels.

Food products that include the word “healthy” on their label must meet specific nutrient-related criteria. The definition of what “healthy” means was originally set by the FDA in 1994 and current nutrition science has evolved since then, as foods that were “healthy” 25 years ago are likely not meeting today’s criteria. The FDA is now proposing to update this definition in effort to modernize its approach to nutrition and reduce the burden of diet-related diseases like cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. Its new definition of healthy aims to priority consumption of vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, proteins, and some oils.

What does the FDA consider healthy?

  1. Foods with limited amounts of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium
  2. Foods that contain at least 10% DV of one or more of the following nutrients: vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein, or dietary fiber
  3. Foods with limited amount of added sugars

Sounds like a really good thing, right? A quick way to help consumers identify healthier food choices?

As a registered dietitian, I’m actually not so sure, and here’s why:

  1. There is limited to no evidence that this will actually change behavior. Just because you label something as healthy doesn’t mean people are suddenly going to start buying that item and not buying others.
  2. Many nutritious and/or convenient options won’t be considered healthy under the new definition. For example, a 6-oz serving of yogurt will likely exceed the limit of 2.5 g of added sugar; or a frozen dinner of salmon, green beans, and brown rice will have more than the 230 mg limit of sodium.
  3. It doesn’t look at the context of a person’s diet as a whole. You will not suddenly become unhealthy from one food, one meal, one day, or even one week’s worth of eating foods that don’t meet the FDAs definition of “healthy”.
  4. It doesn’t account for individual needs. Everyone is different and nutritional needs can vary greatly from person to person. There is no such thing as a standard definition of what’s “healthy” for all.
  5. Consumers will automatically assume that other foods are “unhealthy” or “bad”. Food is food, and just because a food does not provide as many nutrients as another food does not make that food “bad”.

It may take up to a year or more for the FDA’s new definition of “healthy” to be approved, and if it is, I encourage you to take it with a grain of salt (pun intended). Because at the end of the day, this Registered Dietitian is here to tell you that there is room for ALL foods in your diet!

Amanda Benson is a Registered Dietitian and Wellness Strategy Manager with Vitality. She received her BS in nutrition at Michigan State University and completed her dietetic internship at the Medical University of South Carolina. When she’s not chasing around her two young children, she enjoys relaxing with a hot cup of coffee, running, attending concerts with her husband and wine nights with girlfriends.

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