The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in the process of reviewing the guidelines for how the word "healthy" is used on food labels these days, a definition that hasn't been revisited since the 1990's.
Think back to what you were eating in the 1990s. If you weren't born yet, think back to all those ancient episodes of "Friends" you've streamed, and consider what the characters were eating. Your "healthy" grocery list (or Rachel Green's, if that's how you're playing this game) might have featured skim milk, pretzels, "light" salad dressings, frosted cereal, margarine, and maybe a box of fat-free cookies. It's enough to give a modern carb-averse, processed-food-fearing, sugar-gram counter the vapors. But the '90s weren't trying to kill us — they were just trying to keep us from getting heart disease by removing the fat from everything.
The '90s is also the decade commonly blamed for making Americans fat.
However, the 2010 U.S. dietary guidelines suggest it's not the amount of fat that makes a difference to your health, but the type of fat. For instance, avocados and almonds are full of healthy fats, whereas cheeseburger fats do us few favors. Thanks to a petition filed by Kind LLC — the company that was sent a warning letter last year by the FDA because it labelled its fruit and nut bars "healthy," though their fat content exceeds that of the current labeling guidelines — the FDA is in the process of putting new parameters on the word "healthy" so snack bar companies can continue to sell you stuff with it in good conscience.
"The FDA believes that the term 'healthy' on a food label is a useful tool for consumers to quickly and easily make better food choices, but it needs to be updated to be consistent with current public health recommendations," says Lauren Kotwicki, a spokesperson for the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the FDA, in an email statement. "Since the completion of the new Nutrition Facts label, we are now able to update the definition of this term to be consistent with current nutrition recommendations, which focus on food groups, type of fat, added sugars and an updated group of nutrients of public health concern."
But will changing the rules on what products are allowed to carry the word "healthy" on their packaging actually impact public health? Nancy Farrell, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics thinks it will:
"Educating consumers is one of the best ways to improve public health outcomes," says Farrell. "As evidence-based science evolves and we understand food, nutrition and health better, it's important to update and improve guidelines like this one. I think this change will eventually impact public health, but it will take time for healthcare providers, including nutritionists and dietitians, to increase public awareness through the understanding of the term and how it's used."
Getting Your Input
Not only is the FDA changing the definition of the "healthy" nutrient content claim, it wants to know what you think it should be included in the definition. Last month, the agency opened a public comment period to gather ideas from the public, which is standard procedure for any government rulemaking procedure, although Farrell is excited about the opportunity for people to weigh in:
"It will allow for interested parties and the general public to express their views and idea, which will assist in buy-in. It also raises the profile of the issue, and thereby starts the education process," she says.
So, if you have input, knock yourself out and contribute suggestions to the government! The 120-day comment period started on September 28, 2016, so you have a little time to formulate your thoughts.
When we can expect a new official definition for "healthy" is a little up in the air. The FDA will use the information it collects to develop a proposed rule, which will then be published for public comment before the final rule.
"The length of time a rulemaking takes depends on many factors, and as a result it is too early in the process to identify when a new final definition of 'healthy' will be in effect," says Kotwicki.