Health care

FDA Creates New Definition of "Healthy"

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Before this updated definition, the FDA had a rule that any high-fat food, including almonds and other nuts, couldn’t be called “healthy” on product packaging.

From “natural” to “artisanal,” the culinary world has a history of playing fast-and-loose with on-trend yet ultimately meaningless words. But the FDA recently decided to change all that, by updating criteria for when foods can use the nutrient content claim “healthy.”

This isn’t a new label, as the producers of KIND bars know well. In 2015, the FDA sent a nine-page warning letter to the company claiming that its bars were misusing the term, based on a stipulation that “healthy” foods contain a gram or less of saturated fat per serving. The KIND bars called out by the FDA did indeed break this rule… because they were filled with nuts and coconut. Since we all know that such fat sources are actually great for us, this was a major eye-roll-inducing moment.

Fat is essential to your health because it supports a number of your body’s functions. Vitamins A, D, E, and K all use fat as a “carrier” to be absorbed by your body.

With this update, these outdated issues should be no more. The new rule aligns more closely with the definition of “healthy” supported by most recent nutrition science, according to a recent press release from the agency, better accounting for how nutrients work—not in isolation, but rather in synergy to improve health. Plus, the guidelines now support the new national strategy to end hunger and improve nutrition among Americans.

So what does this really mean?

Namely, that certain higher-fat foods like nuts and seeds, higher fat fish, and certain oils can now use the term “healthy” on their packaging, while foods containing too much excess sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars cannot.

Salmon is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can help to lower inflammation and support heart health, according to the American Heart Association.

Lisa Richards, nutritionist and founder of The Candida Diet, applauds the effort. “It’s about time governing authorities took seriously how our diet impacts chronic diseases that plague Americans,” she says. “Even more so that the food industry and marketing are being called out for their vague health claims.”

And Dr. Robert Brown, MD, agrees. “This is an important step for improving public health,” he says. “Up until now, vendors have been able to throw around the ‘healthy’ label on anything and everything.” While he notes that there are some essential elements that the label doesn’t regulate—namely chemical additives—for Richards, the parameters are “specific and strict in areas that matter.”

Dr. Richards also shared that “This label sounds like it will be relatively useful for consumers when selecting foods. Unlike other terms like ‘made with whole grains’ or ‘organic’, this label will have more strict parameters that must be met. While it is important to continue reading labels and ingredients, having a food labeled ‘healthy’ and actually being relatively healthy should make shopping for health food products much easier and less of a mental stressor.”

The labeling guidelines will not only empower consumers to make healthier choices. The hope, according to the press release, is that such a label will also help encourage manufacturers to reformulate their products to meet the new definition—something that Brown echoes as a definite possibility.

“It may take time, but I believe vendors will ultimately create foods that can use the healthy label because there is definitely a market for these products,” explains Brown. An on-package symbol may follow to make things even easier for consumers—we’ll be keeping an eye out for it for sure.

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