The FDA Finally Has a Definition for “Healthy” Food

In 2016, the FDA sent a letter to snack food company, saying that nuts are too high in fat to be considered “healthy” and that the company was prohibited from using the word healthy in the description of their energy bars. KIND shot back that of course nuts are healthy and it’s the FDA who’s wrong. The FDA responded with, Oh, perhaps you’re right. We’ll think on that. Since that time, the agency has been mulling over the question of exactly what “healthy” means. The old definition of healthy required that foods be low in sodium, fat and cholesterol, but the Dietary Guidelines have changed since that original definition was made part of the FDA’s code. The 2015 guidelines got rid of limitations on cholesterol, and the 2020 guidelines introduced a limit on added sugar. So now, in 2022, the FDA has proposed a new rule on when a company can call their products “healthy.” Today, products would need to contain a certain meaningful amount of food from at least one of the food groups (fruit, vegetables, dairy, etc.) recommended by the Dietary Guidelines. Products must also adhere to specific limits for certain nutrients, such as saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. For example, the limit for sodium is 10% of the daily value per serving, or 230mg. A cereal would need to contain three-quarters of an ounce of whole grains and no more than one gram of saturated fat, 230mg of sodium, and 2½ grams of added sugar. So, a container of yogurt could be “healthy” since it provides dairy, but only if it doesn’t have too much sugar. The new rules are a bit more compatible with the idea that eating patterns are what can be healthy or unhealthy, and is supposed to somewhat take the focus off of glorifying or demonizing individual foods and nutrients. Because all of this can be confusing to the average consumer, the FDA is currently working on a symbol that can be placed on food labels to designate them as “healthy" foods.