The word “healthy” may soon be taking on a whole new meaning—at least when it comes to food labeling.
The U.S. FDA has begun a public process to redefine the “healthy” nutrient content claim, as the current rules have come under scrutiny of late for preventing nutritious items with high fat content from being listed as “healthy.”
The FDA’s efforts are part of its overall plan to provide consumers with better information and tools to enable them to quickly and easily make food choices consistent with public health recommendations and to encourage the development of healthier foods by the industry.
“This is good news for food manufacturers,” says James Schurz, a partner with Morrison & Foerster, who represents companies on advertising, product liability, and food law matters. “Our understanding about nutrition has evolved and it follows that the definition for the ‘healthy’ labeling claim should reflect our current understanding. This current regulatory framework is out-of-step with our understanding of a well-balanced diet and the advances of nutrition science. Consumers need a regulatory framework that provides meaningful information based on sound science.”
Historically, FDA labeling focused on the amount of fat in a food. Today, nutritionists agree that the type of fat, rather than amount of fat, is the more relevant inquiry.
For example, Schurz notes, consumers are encouraged to eat more plant-based fats and omega-3s from fatty fish. By contrast, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting saturated fats to less than 10 percent of total daily calorie intake.
Creighton R. Magid, a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney and head of its Washington D.C. office, notes nutrition science is evolving, with an emphasis on looking at the pluses and minuses of various foods, rather than categories.
“Evidence is emerging that the past emphasis on fat as a villain was driven in large measure by lobbying (by the sugar industry) rather than by science,” he says. “KIND forced the FDA to back down when it fought back against FDA’s Warning Letter saying that KIND’s use of nuts in its snack bars caused the bars to have too much fat to be ‘healthy.’ KIND pointed out that the same would be true of salmon and avocados.”
Once the FDA’s new guidelines are official, consumers can expect to see a greater attention to the types of fat in certain foods. For example, avocados and cashews are high in fat—but the plant-based fats that nutritionists believe are part of a healthy diet.
“Under the existing regime these types of ‘high fat’ foods would not be labeled as ‘healthy’ even though nutritionists are encouraging people to eat more of them,” Schurz says.
The modernized definition of “healthy” will also most likely address sugar content.
“The FDA is taking into account all of the newer evidence linking excessive sugar intake to health risks,” Schurz says. “So we can look at healthy labeling requirements to take a closer look at the amount of sugar in products.”
While FDA is considering how to redefine the term “healthy” as a nutrient content claim, and at the same time considering whether and how to regulate use of the term “natural,” which many consumers equate with healthy food, manufacturers can continue to use the term “healthy” on foods that meet the current regulatory definition.