FDA Seeks to Redefine ‘Healthy’

The agency has proposed a healthy labeling criteria and a symbol for foods, but the guidelines could spark controversy.

September 30, 2022

WASHINGTON—The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed updated criteria for when foods can be labeled with the nutrient content claim “healthy” on their packaging.

The proposed rule would update the “healthy” claim definition to better account for how all the nutrients in various food groups contribute and may work synergistically to create healthy dietary patterns and improve health. Under the proposed definition for the updated “healthy” claim, which is based on current nutrition science, more foods that are part of a healthy dietary pattern and recommended by the Dietary Guidelines would be eligible to use the claim on their labeling, including nuts and seeds, higher fat fish (such as salmon), certain oils and water.

Under the proposed definition, in order to be labeled with the “healthy” claim on food packaging, the products would need to:

  • Contain a certain meaningful amount of food from at least one of the food groups or subgroups (e.g., fruit, vegetable, dairy, etc.) recommended by the Dietary Guidelines.
  • Adhere to specific limits for certain nutrients, such as 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 depending on the food and food group. The limit for sodium is 10% of the DV per serving (230 milligrams per serving).

For example, a cereal would need to contain ¾ ounces of whole grains and contain no more than 1 gram of saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium and 2.5 grams of added sugars.

The agency is also in the process of studying and exploring the development of a symbol that manufacturers could use to show that their product meets the “healthy” claim criteria. The updated “healthy” claim, and potential symbol, together would act as quick signals to help consumers identify healthier food choices more easily, according to the FDA.

The Washington Post reports that the labeling guidelines could be pose controversy among food manufacturers that have sought to capitalize on Americans’ interest in more-healthful food.

“The FDA’s ‘healthy’ definition can succeed only if it is clear and consistent for manufacturers and understood by consumers,” Roberta Wagner, a spokeswoman for the industry organization Consumer Brands Association, told the Post.

“In reality, FDA’s proposed rule will need to undergo significant review and revision to ensure it does not place the politics of food above science and fact,” Sean McBride, founder of DSM Strategic Communications and former executive at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, told the Post. “The details are critical because the final rule goes well beyond a simple definition by creating a de facto nutrition profile regulatory scheme that will dictate how food can be made for decades to come.”

Peter Lurie, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, warned that unless a healthy definition and label is very specific, some companies will try to game the system by “health-washing” their less healthy products to appear healthy. Lurie did tell the Post that front-of-package labeling could work, but the labeling must be mandatory, simple, nutrient-specific and include calories.

According to the FDA, more than 80% of people in the U.S. aren’t eating enough vegetables, fruit and dairy. And most people consume too much added sugars, saturated fat and sodium.

The proposed rule comes on the heels of the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, which took place on Wednesday, as well as the release of the related national strategy, which aims to end hunger, improve nutrition and physical activity, reduce diet-related diseases and close disparity gaps by 2030.