FDA Seeks to Redefine what “Healthy” Actually Means

What the FDA considers “healthy” remains a major source of contention. The FDA has started a public process to redefine the “healthy” claim on food labeling to update existing food choices which will hopefully bring clarity to the issue.

Existing “healthy” guidelines were developed in 1993. They are based on total amounts of fat, rather than the types of fat, and do not address added sugars in the diet. Application of the FDA’s existing guidelines, however, have been inconsistent. For example, the FDA issued a Warning Letter against KIND Bars asking that it remove “healthy” from some of its labeling, only to reverse course a year later.

The FDA now proposes to permit the term “healthy” on labels which are not low in total fat but are composed predominately of mono and poly unsaturated fats and have limited intake of saturated fats and trans fats. The proposed definitions for “healthy” also include a nutrient contribution criterion to assure that the diet contains an adequate intake of nutrients that are important in sustaining bodily functions and reducing the risk of disease. Historically, these nutrients have been Vitamins A and C, iron, calcium and dietary fiber. Vitamins A and C are no longer considered nutrients of public concern. Now it is potassium, Vitamin D, calcium and iron that are in focus. The FDA proposes that any food bearing the nutrient content claim “healthy” contain at least 10 per cent of the Daily Value for those nutrients. Until the guidance is formalized, the FDA intends to exercise enforcement discretion for foods that meet these nutritional levels.

The FDA has extended the comment period for the labeling of food products as “healthy” to April 22, 2017.

Take away: The FDA and industry continue to grapple with what constitutes “healthy,” particularly given the evolving understanding of nutrition. Manufacturers seeking to tout a product as being “healthy” should consider the overall health components of the product.

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