The FDA’s rotten definition of “healthy” food is finally thrown out

The rotten definition of food

The US Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday proposed a long-awaited revision to the definition of the term “healthy” on food packaging, finally doing away with the mind-boggling criteria of the 1990s that made healthy foods like nuts, salmon, avocados, olive oil, and even water unsafe. eligible for the label.

The new definition is not immune from criticism, and Americans are likely to still face uncertainty about healthy food options as they walk down grocery store aisles. But the proposed update, which coincides with this week’s White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health and a national strategy to improve US nutrition and reduce hunger, is a clear improvement.

Under current criteria, established in 1994, the FDA allows food manufacturers to label their products “healthy” based on the short-sighted highs and lows of specific nutrients. That means “healthy” foods have universal maximums for saturated fat, total fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and must also provide at least 10 percent of the daily value of one or more of the following nutrients: vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein and fiber.

Under this rule, foods with lots of added sugars, such as low-fat yogurts or sugary breakfast cereals geared toward children, are eligible for a “healthy” label because they meet the other requirements. The same goes for some nutritionally questionable white breads. However, whole foods like avocados or currently recommended meats like salmon are not eligible due to fat content, which goes against the current evidence-backed wholesomeness of plant-based foods. And even plain water or plain carbonated water cannot be labeled “healthy.”

new rule

The absurdity of this definition made news in 2015 when the FDA sent a warning letter to the maker of Kind bars saying it couldn’t use the term “healthy” on its nut-based bars because they had too much saturated fat. Nuts and seeds by themselves are generally not eligible for the “healthy” label under the current rule. The company resisted, and in 2016, the FDA changed course and said it planned to update the definition, which brings us to the proposed update this week.

Under the FDA’s proposed rule, which could still change, the agency is now taking a more holistic approach to evaluating foods, saying foods could be labeled as healthy if:

  • Contain a significant amount of food from at least one of the food groups or subgroups (eg, fruits, vegetables, dairy, etc.) recommended by the Dietary Guidelines.
  • Meet specific limits for certain nutrients, such as saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.

It is important to note that, for this last point, the thresholds for nutrient limits would vary depending on the type of food or food group that a product contains, i.e. an olive oil-based product has a higher saturated fat limit. higher than plant-based products, which have a lower added sugar limit than grain-based foods. The FDA provided a useful table here on the proposed limits for the different food groups.

The FDA also offered an example of a cereal that would meet the new “healthy” definition: “It should contain ¾ ounces of whole grains and contain no more than 1 gram of saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium, and 2.5 grams of added sugars.”

The FDA hopes the change will help consumers make better food choices at the grocery store and encourage food manufacturers to adjust their products to fit the new definition.

The review is “an important step toward achieving a number of nutrition-related priorities, including empowering consumers with information to make healthier diet choices and establishing healthy eating habits early,” FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said in a statement. “It can also result in a healthier food supply.”

I need a change

These nutrition-related goals are more important than ever. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported data showing the number of states with a high rate of adult obesity, defined as 35 percent of adults or more, has increased. more than double since 2018. Nineteen states and two territories now have high rates. Childhood obesity has also increased amid the pandemic. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last yearthe percentage of children ages 5-11 who are “overweight” or “obese” increased from 36.2% in the year before the pandemic hit to 45.7% in January 2021.

Obesity at any age can cause people to suffer from serious health problems, including high blood pressure, sleep apnea, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, severe outcomes of COVID-19, and poor mental health . The top three causes of death in 2020 were heart disease, cancer, and COVID-19.

Of course, obesity is a complex, multifactorial health condition, and diet is only one part of it. But there’s plenty of data to suggest that people in the US aren’t eating well, and the quintessential American diet is fueling chronic health problems. The FDA notes that 75 percent of Americans have diets low in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products; 77 percent eat too much saturated fat; 63 percent consume too many added sugars; and a whopping 90 percent exceed the limit for sodium.

The FDA’s proposed new definition of “healthy” certainly won’t solve those problems all at once. Some health advocates and experts say it may have minimal effects, and that the package label warning about unhealthy Content, with things like red light symbols, can be more effective than labeling “healthy” foods. But the update is a clear improvement on the current definition of “healthy,” which is not aligned with evidence-based dietary recommendations.

In a comment to The Washington Post, Kind CEO Russell Stokes said the company was celebrating the proposed update. “A rule that reflects current nutritional science and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is a victory for public health, and that’s a victory for all of us.”

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