The FDA is finally changing their understanding of “healthy”

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granola bars on white background diet and breakfast

Image: matka_Wariatka/Shutterstock

It seems like every food on the market is trying to advertise itself as healthy, from that granola bar that seems to contain more chocolate than granola to those sugar- laden chewy fruit candies (“a fat-free food!”). Finally, the FDA is trying to stop the madness by redefining what “healthy” even means within the latest research surrounding fat and other nutrients.

This comes on the heels of the Kind bar controversy, which NPR reported on last May. The FDA filed a complaint that the bars did not match the current definition of a “healthy” snack, in that it had more than three grams of fat per serving.

The problem is that products like Kind bars, which contain nuts, are high in fat. But it’s the heart healthy good-for-you fat. The FDA looked into the situation and allowed the company to keep using the term “healthy.” And now the FDA must re-evaluate what the term “healthy” even means.

What constitutes as “healthy” nowadays 

As of September of this year, the FDA outlined what it now allows as a valid product that can use the term “healthy” on the packaging. The FDA defines “healthy” as: “Are not low in total fat, but have a fat profile makeup of predominantly mono and polyunsaturated fats” and “contain at least ten percent of the Daily Value (DV) per reference amount customarily consumed (RACC) of potassium or vitamin D.”

The FDA declared that regulation is effective immediately and that including the term “healthy” prior to the new guidelines does not automatically mean that companies can keep using the term.

Granted, these are also what the FDA calls “nonbinding recommendations.” These are purely recommendations based on the FDA’s current thinking, and they are not enforceable by law. The FDA maintains that it will “exercise enforcement discretion,” typically taken to mean it won’t police the use of the term with extreme force or make it absolutely mandatory in all applicable situations.

Updated labels last spring 

Although the enforcement of the term “healthy” might seem a little weak, it did come after the FDA completely modernized the food labels for packaged goods last May.

The new labels make a number of changes, such as:

  • A design that highlights calories and servings.
  • A required serving size that reflects how much people actually eat in one sitting. So no pretending a “serving size” is barely any food at all.
  • Similarly, in products where a full package is consumed, like a 20-ounce soda, the full package must be listed as one serving.
  • A designation for added sugars.
  • Per serving and per package dual columns.
  • Vitamin D and potassium listed in gram amount.
  • No listing of calories from fat because not all fat is bad.
  • A better footnote to explain what the %DV is.
  • Updated daily values of sodium, dietary fiber and vitamin D based on the latest recommendations from the Institute of Medicine.

“The updated label makes improvements to this valuable resource so consumers can make more informed food choices—one of the most important steps a person can take to reduce the risk of heart disease and obesity,” FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, M.D. stated in a press release.