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What Does “Healthy” Mean? Give the FDA Your Two Cents

Updated: Jul 23, 2020

By Sarah Everhart

Picked beets (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).

What does “healthy” mean? This is not an easy question to answer and a subject that my four year old son and I often debate. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently started a public process to redefine what the label of healthy means to consumers. According to the FDA, redefining healthy is part of an overall plan to provide consumers with information and tools to easily and quickly make food choices consistent with public health recommendations and encourage the development of healthier foods. A similar process, detailed in this past post, was initiated last year to determine what the label of “natural” means after several food brands were sued for claiming their products were natural.

The term healthy was first officially defined by the FDA in 1994. Food can be labelled as healthy if it meets criteria for being low in fat, saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol, while having a certain amount of beneficial nutrients. There is no limit on the sugar content of food in this definition.

In April, the FDA issued a warning letter to the food company Kind Snacks telling them they couldn’t use the label of healthy to describe their snack bars because the bars, which contain nuts, contained too much saturated fat. The company responded by filing a petition to the FDA to review its standards.

According to the FDA, public health recommendations for various nutrients have evolved. Healthy dietary patterns now focus on food groups; the type of fat rather than the total amount of fat consumed and address added sugars in the diet. The current public health recommendations have led the FDA to seek public input as it redefines the term healthy.

The FDA has also created a guidance document for manufacturers to use in deciding whether they can label their foods as healthy.

If you’re like me and your opinion on what healthy means doesn’t impress the judges and juries in your own household, send the FDA your thoughts on what this term should mean and help the FDA shape the future of food labeling.

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