FDA Looks to Redefine ‘Healthy’ on Food Labels

By Briana Vannozzi

Let’s take a quiz. In moderation, these are all considered healthy foods, right? Wrong. Not if you’re using current FDA guidelines. But that’s about to change. The administration is looking to redefine “healthy” as it’s used on food labels.

“The FDA’s current guidelines are based on scientific evidence that’s a little old, circa 1990, and at that time we demonized fat and said fat was the culprit. So a lot of recommendations are based on how much fat is in the item,” said Peggy Policastro, director of behavioral nutrition at Rutgers New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health.

Items with higher fat contents, like nuts, have been passed over for the healthy label. The FDA has been facing mounting pressure from food companies and health communities to revamp guidelines.

“Sometimes something such as sugary cereal or a pop tart may be deemed healthy, not necessarily that they put it on the label but it can have that healthy label if they wish,” Policastro said.

Food can be marketed as healthy if it meets certain levels for five criteria: fat, saturated fat, sodium, cholesterol and nutrients, like calcium. Snacks typically can’t have more than three grams of fat.

“Today we know it’s not total fat but the types of fat that are in food, so when we use the old guidelines that only look at fat, things such as almonds, salmon, avocados are considered unhealthy, but we know them to be really good sources of fat,” Policastro said.

Such was the case for health food company KIND last year. It fought a warning from the FDA to remove healthy from its label because of the high amount of saturated fat in the products, which mainly comes from almonds.

“The government certainly has some bad diet advice. You can see that through the course of many decades with respect to trans fats and margarines and things like that,” said Ian Keith, chef manager at Harvest Café at Rutgers New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health.

Keith with Rutgers’ Harvest Café says a good rule of thumb is to go for minimally processed, whole foods.

Does he think the average consumer gets easily confused by what is healthy and what’s not? “Absolutely it’s a daunting task any time you try to read certain nutritional labels and how the FDA uses certain words or what words are natural or what’s organic or certain acronyms that they use, it’s confusing,” he said.

Labeling questions have become a big issue for the FDA over the years. Just last year the agency banned partially hydrogenated oils and even that took years of lobbying efforts to remove.

If I told you under current federal guidelines an avocado wouldn’t make the cut, but a pop tart would, what do you think? “I would think that’s pretty disturbing,” said Jim Morley.

The FDA has to incorporate the science as well as industry feedback before making a ruling. And this time they’ll be asking for public input, too. Experts warn it could take years before the process is complete.