What does the term “healthy” actually mean? The ​​Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced this week that it is proposing a new definition of “healthy” to better reflect current nutrition science. The agency announced new nutritional criteria that a product must meet to use the “healthy” claim on packaging, and is researching potential symbols to add to the front of packages that could simplify for consumers which foods can help “build healthy dietary patterns.”

The goal of the new proposal is to make nutrition labels easier to navigate for busy shoppers, empowering them to make decisions that promote health when it comes to the array of food choices at the grocery store. 

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“Healthy eating patterns are associated with improved health, yet most people’s eating patterns do not align with current dietary recommendations,” said Susan Mayne, Ph.D., director of the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in a press release. 

From a public health standpoint, the aim of the revamped definition is to better align more peoples’ dietary choices with what is considered to be a “healthful” diet according to today’s nutrition recommendations. But “healthy” can be a loaded term.

FDA redefines “healthy”

More than 80% of people in the U.S. aren’t eating enough vegetables, fruit and dairy, according to the Dietary Guidelines for America, 2020-2025. And most are consuming too much added sugars, saturated fat and sodium. Research shows that following these types of dietary patterns can increase the risk of chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

The new definition, which hasn’t been updated since the “healthy” claim was first established by the FDA in 1994, is not yet finalized, but would require products to fit the following criteria:

  • Contain a certain meaningful amount of food from at least one of the food groups or subgroups (e.g., fruit, vegetable, dairy, etc.) recommended by the Dietary Guidelines.  
  • Adhere to specific limits for certain nutrients, such as saturated fat, sodium and added sugars. The threshold for the limits is based on a percent of the Daily Value (DV) for the nutrient and varies depending on the food and food group. The limit for sodium is 10% of the DV per serving (230 milligrams per serving).

For example, a cereal would need to 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 to be able to make the “healthy” claim. 

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Changing with the times

Under current regulations, which focus primarily on limiting fat and cholesterol, foods like sweetened cereals and sugary yogurts can use the “healthy” claim on their packaging, whereas nuts, avocados and eggs cannot. For some reason, even bottled water is not currently permitted to be labeled as “healthy.”

Per the proposal, all whole fruits and vegetables, plain bottled water, plain sparkling water and higher-fat foods such as trail mix, salmon and olive oil (which don’t currently qualify as “healthy” under the current definition that limits fats), would now qualify under the proposed definition, whereas cereals with more than the permissible amount of added sugar would not. 

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“Along with empowering consumers, adopting the updated definition may help foster a healthier food supply if some manufacturers reformulate [e.g., add more vegetables or whole grains to meet criteria] or develop products that meet the updated definition,” states the agency.

Better alignment

At its core, the updated definition is intended to better align food packaging with what is considered to be the most “health-promoting” according to current nutrition science. 

Shifting to recognize the important health effects of fats from oils, nuts and seeds and fatty fish is a landmark moment for the FDA, which for decades promoted the incorrect thinking that eating fat is unhealthy

Experts believe a front-facing “healthy” symbol on food packaging might make decision-making easier for consumers, as the Nutrition Facts label that appears on the back of products is notoriously hard to read. 

Related: FDA is finally taking action to regulate the levels of lead found in kids’ juice

Defining “healthy” is difficult

On the population level, the FDA’s new proposal is something of a sea change. But defining “healthy” can be tricky. 

“The term ‘healthy’ is notoriously difficult to define, much less regulate,” says Adrienne Bitar, a Cornell University expert in the history and culture of American food and the author of “Diet and the Disease of Civilization,” in a blog post. “Healthy is not a neutral one-size-fits-all concept, but a fraught term that has long been invoked to make moral judgments between good and bad, wholesome and corrupt, and healthy and unhealthy.” 

Even defining “healthy” or “unhealthy” foods in your own home can be fraught. Using such stark labels places value judgments on food, when food is, in fact, morally neutral. While certain foods are more nutritionally dense or health-promoting than others, there are no “good” and “bad” foods, and talking about food in such absolute terms can set up restrictive eating patterns in kids, which could lead to altered relationships with food down the line. 

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Instead, try talking with your kids about how certain foods can help you fend off colds, grow stronger, see in the dark or have more energy to run, or how some foods may be considered “all-the-time foods” in your home, whereas others might be “sometimes foods.”

It’s always important to be mindful of the fact that the term “healthy” can mean different things to different people. The new front-facing label will hopefully make identifying health-promoting choices easier, but the healthiest thing to focus on when planning your family’s diet? Opting for variety as much as you can.