The proposed update aims to make choosing nutritious foods easier for everyone.
Did you know that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t changed its rules about which foods can be declared as “healthy” on a packaging label since 1994? That basically means the current regulatory definition of what constitutes a healthy ingredient or food product does not reflect nearly 30 years’ worth of advancements in health and nutrition science. But it seems like the FDA’s “healthy” criteria are about to receive a long-overdue makeover.
The agency recently announced a plan to propose “to update the definition for the implied nutrient content claim ‘healthy’ to be consistent with current nutrition science and Federal dietary guidance,” which includes the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2020–2025), as well as the updated Nutrition Facts Label.
This new categorization aims to focus more on the value of eating certain food groups rather than trying to obtain individual nutrients, an approach that Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, registered dietitian and NOW Wellness expert, is excited about.
“This is an amazing step forward,” Blatner says. “The new definition would focus on actual food groups, which is exactly what health care professionals tell people to focus on for overall health. These days we know good nutrition does not come from intake of individual nutrients, but rather [from] eating food groups that have a bunch of different nutrients in them working together.”
Under the proposed rules, Blatner explains, a food product must meet the following criteria to be eligible to wear the label of "healthy":
1. It must contain a meaningful amount of a food from at least one food group recommended by the current Dietary Guidelines (e.g. vegetables, dairy, whole grains).
2. It must contain a limited amount of saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar.
Blatner also adds that the new label would no longer account for total fat, and start including added sugars. “[This] is a great shift since we now know it isn’t about eating low fat, but about eating the right types of fat,” she says. “And keeping added sugar in check is important, since 63 percent of us exceed the added sugar recommendations.”
What's behind the proposed change?
The point is not to make food shopping and eating well even more complicated. Rather, the goal is to help educate and empower consumers—to make recognizing and choosing nutrient-dense, good-for-you foods more straightforward, which can ultimately help contribute to a long and healthy life.
“The proposed rule is part of the agency’s ongoing commitment to helping consumers improve nutrition and dietary patterns to help reduce the burden of chronic disease and advance health equity,” the FDA press release reads, adding that, “adopting the updated definition may help foster a healthier food supply if some manufacturers reformulate…or develop products that meet the updated definition.”
The FDA is also working on creating a new “healthy” symbol to appear on foods, also meant to help consumers identify smart, nutritious choices with ease.
So, what foods are healthy, according to the FDA?
The good news is that the FDA is kind of playing catch-up here, so this probably wouldn't turn our basic understanding of healthy, balanced eating upside-down. And it’s certainly not promoting any fad diets or a new list of trendy, expensive, hard-to-pronounce superfoods.
In fact, it would really just confirm much of what we know with a visual stamp of approval. Tons of familiar foods we already recognize as nutrient-rich and good for us would meet a newly minted regulatory definition and be able to use a literal “healthy” claim on the packaging.
“Under the proposed definition, raw whole fruits and vegetables would automatically qualify for the ‘healthy’ claim because of their nutrient profile and positive contribution to an overall healthy diet,” the FDA explains.
Often-recommended foods like nuts, seeds, eggs, fatty fish (like salmon, anchovies, and albacore tuna), olive oil, low-sugar yogurt, and even bottled water would make the cut. In fact, based on the existing definition (again, established in 1994!), foods like avocados, higher-fat fish, and certain oils are technically not eligible to claim the “healthy” label—something the proposed rules would amend. At the other end of things, foods that currently qualify to bear the “healthy” claim—white bread, sugar-packed breakfast cereals and yogurts—would no longer qualify.
“The new proposed definition [would] reinforce solid nutrition advice we’re already giving: [That] vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, and poultry (when prepared with little or no added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium) are nutrient-dense foods that can help keep us healthy,” Blatner says.
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