Can You Define Healthy?

Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Ken Davis

The FDA wants to know!

The Upper Valley is a health-conscious community. But shopping for healthy food can be a challenge. "Healthy" is a big, broad word, and how it's used on food packaging isn't always accurate. Now's your chance to tell regulators what you expect of foods that carry a healthy claim.

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FDA Opens Public Comment Period to Help Define Healthy

In April of 2015, KIND, a maker of granola and snack bars, got a surprising notice from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. KIND products, made from whole nuts, fruits, and whole grains, did not meet regulations for "healthy," the FDA said.  

“The current regulations were created with the best intentions when the available science supported dietary recommendations limiting total fat intake,” Daniel Lubetzky, KIND CEO and founder, said in a statement. “However, current science tells us that the unsaturated fats in nutrient-dense foods like nuts, seeds and certain fish are beneficial to overall health.” 

Later that year, KIND petitioned the FDA to change its regulations. Now the FDA is getting the process started.

The FDA is seeking public input on how best to define “healthy,” the agency announced earlier this week, the first step in potentially changing when and how to apply the term to food labels. 

“The FDA believes that the term ‘healthy’ on a food label is a useful tool for consumers to quickly and easily make better food choices,” FDA spokesperson Lauren Kotwicki told me in an email on Thursday, “but it needs to be updated to be consistent with current public health recommendations.” 

A product can only be labeled “healthy” if it meets FDA guidelines, established more than 20 years ago when low-fat diets were considered the standard-bearer of good health. Some low-fat sweets and sugary cereals are healthy by FDA standards. Nuts, avocados, salmon, and other nutritious fats are not.  

Kotwicki said, “Since the completion of the new Nutrition Facts label, we are now able to update the definition of this term to be consistent with current nutrition recommendations, which focus on food groups, type of fat, added sugars, and an updated group of nutrients of public health concern.”

The FDA welcomes public comments until January 26, 2017. Questions include: 

  • What current dietary recommendations should be reflected in the definition of healthy? 
  • What are the public health benefits of defining the term healthy?
  • What do consumers expect of foods that carry a healthy claim?
  • What factors and criteria should be used for the new definition of healthy? 

“I anticipate that a new definition of ‘healthy’ will be low in added sugars, sodium, and saturated fat,” said Hannah Brilling, dietitian and Co-op nutrition specialist. “I would love to see food items that are high in mono+polyunsaturated fats to be labeled as healthy.”

Brilling said she hopes new regulations may also eliminate some of the confusion caused by the terms “natural” and “organic,” which are often applied to unsavory foods to make them appear more healthy than they are. 

“Remember, ‘natural’ means absolutely nothing from a regulatory standpoint,” Brilling said. “And ‘organic’ is a regulated term, but it has nothing to do with how healthy a food is, just the growing practices used. So organic cookies are no healthier than conventional broccoli from a nutrition standpoint.”

Kotwicki said the FDA will hold public forums to get additional input from consumers.  “This may take some time,” she said, “but we want to get it right.”

To learn more and comment, go here.  

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