FDA Is Redefining The Term 'Healthy' On Food Labels

Oct 3, 2016
Originally published on October 3, 2016 6:42 am

So, you're looking for a quick grab-and-go snack, and there's a row of energy bars at the checkout counter. Are they a healthy option?

The maker of Kind bars thinks so. The company has used the phrase "healthy and tasty" on some of its products that contain lots of nuts. But, here's the issue: The bars contained too much fat to meet the Food and Drug Administration's strict low-fat definition of healthy. So, as we reported last May, the company helped launch a petition to challenge the status quo.

Now the FDA has begun the process of redefining the term "healthy" on food labels. Policymakers are looking for input from food makers, health experts and the public. You can weigh in with your ideas about what factors and criteria should be used for the new definition. (Submit electronic comments directly to the FDA).

"As our understanding about nutrition has evolved, we need to make sure the definition for the 'healthy' labeling claim stays up to date," writes Douglas Balentine, who directs the Office of Nutrition and Food Labeling at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

So, how has nutrition science — and the thinking about what's healthful — evolved?

Let's start with fat. The fat-free era has come and gone. "The most recent public health recommendations now focus on type of fat, rather than amount of fat," Balentine writes in a blog post for the FDA.

For instance, the type of fats found in avocados and nuts are considered healthful fats. We're encouraged to eat more plant-based fats and omega-3s from fatty fish, whereas the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting saturated fats — the type of fat found in meat and other animal products — to less than 10 percent of your total daily calorie intake.

The modernized definition of "healthy" will also likely address sugar content. The FDA is taking into account all of the newer evidence linking excessive sugar intake to heart disease and obesity.

"Our thinking about sugars has changed," Balentine told us, "so I would think the amount of sugar in products is something we [will] take into account."

In an ideal world, people wouldn't need labels to signal which food choices are healthful. As nutrition guru Marion Nestle of New York University, tells us, "if people want to eat healthfully, we know how to do that. That's eating lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains." And she says we should eat packaged and processed foods in much smaller amounts.

"I don't think we should have health claims [on food packages] at all," Nestle tells us. "They're inherently misleading," because food companies use them as a marketing tool.

But the FDA's Douglas Balentine pushes back, pointing out that Americans are looking for information on food packages to help them make better decisions.

"The typical consumer makes a purchase decision in three to five seconds. They don't have a lot of time," Balentine says. So, he says, an up-to-date "healthy" label will give people a quick way to identify better-for-you options. "We want to give consumers the best tools and information about the foods they choose."

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And the Food and Drug Administration is in the process of redefining what counts as a healthy food. The FDA is asking the public to weigh in on a new definition which will help determine whether food companies can label their products as healthy. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports that as nutrition science has evolved, a modern definition is overdue.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: The last time the Food and Drug Administration took a stab at defining what counts as a healthy food product was in 1994. Back then, this was one of the most popular snack foods on the market.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Attention shoppers. SnackWells' cream sandwich cookies have just arrived in aisle three.

AUBREY: SnackWells were positioned as a low-fat alternative to fattier treats.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What a creamy way to cut the fat.

AUBREY: The message was low fat was better for you. The FDA's Douglas Balentine says it reflected the thinking of the day.

DOUGLAS BALENTINE: Yes. Back then, low fat was a key component so that the dietary guidelines was advising diets be low in total fat.

AUBREY: But the fat-free boom has come and gone, and now it's recognized that some fats are good for us. We need them.

BALENTINE: Today, we're now looking at the quality of fat, rather than the amount of fat.

AUBREY: Take for instance nuts - such as almonds and walnuts. They're quite high in fat, but now we're encouraged to eat them.

BALENTINE: Dietary guidelines recommends that consumers include nuts and seeds, and nuts naturally contain quite a bit of healthy fats.

AUBREY: Given this new thinking, shouldn't some snacks that contain a lot of nuts be allowed to be labeled as healthy? The makers of Kind bars think so. Under the old rule, they didn't make the cut, but this year, the company petitioned the FDA to begin this process of redefining healthy. The modernized definition is also likely to address sugar content, given all of the newer evidence linking excessive sugar to heart disease and obesity.

BALENTINE: Our thinking about sugars has changed, so I would think the amount of sugar is something that we will have to take into account.

AUBREY: This may also work in favor of snacks such as Kind bars because they don't have much sugar. Now, in an ideal world, we wouldn't need labels to tell us what foods are healthier. People wouldn't eat so much processed food. They just know that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains is healthier. But this is not the world we're living in. Balentine says Americans buy lots of packaged foods.

BALENTINE: Well, you know, the typical consumer makes a purchase decision in about three to five seconds.

AUBREY: And he says an up to date label will give people a quick way to make healthier choices. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.