This September, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its proposed update to the nutrient content claim “healthy.” Used in food package labeling, the term is intended to help busy consumers spot more nutritious foods at a glance.
The proposed update was announced the day of the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, and its timing was no coincidence. Representing a “whole-of-government” approach in action, the new healthy definition advances the Biden-Harris Administration’s national strategy—particularly its call to improve the American diet and reduce the barriers consumers face in making healthier choices.
It’s been nearly 30 years since the FDA updated its healthy criteria, and the long-awaited refresh aligns the healthy claim with the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Nutrition Facts label. “Healthy eating patterns are associated with improved health,” noted Susan Mayne, director of the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, “yet most people’s eating patterns do not align with current dietary recommendations.” By encouraging the consumption of food groups like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, while limiting added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium, the proposed changes reflect the agency’s commitment to helping consumers enhance nutrition and dietary patterns while reducing the incidence of diet-related diseases.
The new proposed definition reflects other significant changes, as well. The “fat-free” phase of the 1990s has long given way to the recognition that not all fat is bad—and fats like those found in avocados and salmon are beneficial. Additionally, some items that once qualified for a healthy nutrient content claim, such as white bread, cereals, and sweetened yogurts, now may no longer qualify.
The FDA regulates about 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, and its labeling efforts can be powerful levers for change, according to Robin McKinnon, the FDA’s senior advisor for nutrition policy, who spoke at IFT’s recent virtual event “The Role of Food Science and Technology in the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health” (now available on demand). McKinnon offered the example of artificial trans fats (also known as partially hydrogenated oils). In 2006 in response to scientific evidence that showed trans fats to be major contributors to heart disease, the FDA required they be listed on food nutrition labels. As consumer awareness grew, consumption plummeted, McKinnon said, and that spurred more healthful food reformulations by food technologists and the food industry. Today, after further regulatory measures, artificial trans fats are “virtually eliminated from the food supply,” she added.
The updated healthy labeling could lead to a similar shift. Diet-related illnesses like heart disease, stroke, and Type-2 diabetes remain leading causes of death in the United States, and it’s abundantly clear that the foods we eat play a significant role in preventing these and other chronic diseases. If combined with public education and consumer interest, a robust definition of healthy could help empower people to make healthier choices.
The proposed healthy rule is open to public comment through February 16, 2023. IFT members who wish to comment are invited to reach out to IFT’s Senior Director of Government Affairs and Nutrition Anna Rosales.
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A conversation with IFT's senior food safety and traceability scientist Sara Bratager