WASHINGTON -- For the first time in decades, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is re-evaluating the definition of "healthy" and how companies can use the claim on food packages.
Prompted by the forthcoming changes to the Nutrition Facts label, and changes in understandings about diet and nutrition, the FDA said it wants to be sure its definition of "healthy" stays up to date.
At least one manufacturer put pressure on the FDA for a new definition, filing a citizen petition in December. Kind snacks had asked for the update, seeking a regulation that is "more consistent with current nutrition science and prizes nutrient-dense foods." Kind has noted that the current regulation precludes foods such as nuts, avocados and salmon from being labeled as healthy, while allowing items such as fat-free chocolate pudding, some sugary cereals and low-fat toaster pastries to carry the healthy designation.
Final rules on updating the Nutrition Facts label were published in May, and over the next two years consumers will notice labels with a new design and larger type that makes the calories and serving sizes of products easier to see, along with additional nutrition information, such as added sugars, vitamin D and potassium.
In studying the definition, the FDA is asking stakeholders and consumers four key questions:
- What’s your understanding of the meaning of the term “healthy” as it relates to food?
- What are your expectations of foods that carry a “healthy” claim?
- What types of foods, if any, should be allowed to bear the term “healthy”?
- Is healthy the best term to characterize foods that should be encouraged to build healthy dietary patterns or practices? What other terms might be more appropriate (e.g. “nutritious”)?
Douglas Balentine, Ph.D., director of the Office of Nutrition and Food Labeling for FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said, "We know that many consumers use the Nutrition Facts label, especially when they are buying a food for the first time. Often, there are also a lot of other terms on food packages such as 'healthy,' 'low in fat' or 'good source.' We also know that many just don’t have the time to consider the details of nutrition information on every package they purchase."
In an FDA blog post, he explained that’s the main reason for redefining the term “healthy.” For instance, he said, public health recommendations focus on type of fat, rather than amount of fat. Recommendations also look at added sugars, as well as on nutrients that consumers aren’t getting enough of, such as vitamin D and potassium.
While the FDA has begun considering the criteria for the updated definition, it also is asking for public input. A public comment period is open through Jan. 26, 2017, for the new definition. Comments can be submitted electronically or in writing by the deadline.
"This may take some time, but we want to get it right," Balentine said.
He said the FDA also is evaluating other label claims to determine how they might be modernized.