What Does the FDA’s Decision on “Healthy” Mean for Me?


If you were to stop everything you are doing to take a look at the foods you have stocked in your kitchen cabinet, how many of their labels include the word “healthy”?

The answer is probably quite a few, and I imagine that’s not just by accident — if you’re anything like me you probably go out of our way to seek out foods with this description every time you go to the grocery store.

Well, it may soon be time to reevaluate the family meal, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced it is revisiting its definition of “healthy.”

Wait, the FDA Dictates If the Food I’m Eating Is “Healthy”?

Yep. Just like the FDA regulates labeling for pharmaceutical products, the agency is responsible for controlling what labels grocery brands can and cannot put on their packaging.

According to current guidelines, which were first issued in 1990, a food manufacturer can only use the word “healthy” if it meets specific criteria related to fat, saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol, among other nutrients. For example, the amount of total fat must be less than five grams of fat per reference amount customarily consumed (RACC), and saturated fat must be less than two grams per RACC. Foods must also contain at least 10 percent of the recommended daily value of beneficial nutrients such as vitamin A, protein or fiber.

What’s Wrong With the Current Guidelines?

Well, the guidelines aren’t necessarily wrong — even the FDA acknowledges that “healthy” is subjective. And everyone’s personal definition of  “healthy” may be different, as well. I’m sure you have friends who go out and let you know they are eating “healthy” while they eat a Caesar Salad.  The FDA’s current definition makes things all the more fuzzy.

The problem is, under current guidelines, foods that most of us would generally consider healthy, such as nuts and avocados, can’t use that label because they’re high in fat content (even though nutritionists consider it the good fat).

Meanwhile, foods like sugary cereals and Pop Tarts can claim they’re “healthy” because the same guidelines don’t include a provision for sugar content.

What Prompted the FDA’s Decision to Make Revisions?

The recent conversation about what is and isn’t “healthy” began last year, after KIND granola bars received an FDA warning letter for unauthorized use of the term. Specifically, the fruit-and-nut bar, which branded itself as “healthy and tasty, convenient and wholesome,” contains five grams of saturated fat per 40 grams of food, which does not meet current guidelines for the “healthy” label.

In the warning letter, William Correll, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety, wrote, “None of your products listed above meet the requirements for use of the nutrient claim ‘healthy.’ ”

How did the makers of KIND bars react? They submitted a citizen petition to the FDA last December, pointing out the flaws in the agency’s guidelines. Specifically, they noted that foods like nuts, avocado and salmon, which are forbidden from using the “healthy” label, are often recommended as part of an overall healthy diet by doctors and nutrition professionals.

Earlier this month, in response to KIND’s petition, the FDA relented — the agency said the food manufacturer can keep the word “healthy” on its label because it relates to the brand’s philosophy rather than to a particular item. The FDA has also received pressure from Congress to revisit the labeling issue after the House of Representatives recently issued a bill encouraging the federal organization to update its guidelines “to be based on scientific agreement.”

What Does All of This Mean for My Meals?

The answer is — we don’t know quite yet. While the FDA has promised to revisit its outdated definition of “healthy,” the agency has not provided a timeline for this process.

So far, the effort seems promising. In an official statement earlier this month in response to KIND’s petition, the FDA wrote, “In light of evolving nutrition research, forthcoming Nutrition Facts Labeling final rules and a citizen petition, we believe now is an opportune time to reevaluate regulations concerning nutrient content claims, generally, including the term ‘healthy.'”

The agency also reports that it plans to solicit comments from the public about this conversation in the “near future,” and in a similar vein, it would like to evaluate its perspective on the label “natural,” which currently has no official definition.

What Do We Do in the Meantime?

The best approach is to not get hung up on labeling claims. Who cares if your box of granola bars or bag of popcorn uses the word “healthy” on the packaging? You can lead a healthy lifestyle regardless. Go with what the nutritionists keep saying about healthy eating: Replace sugar with less refined alternatives, don’t gorge yourself on processed garbage, go organic when you can and make sure to always eat your vegetables. I don’t think that’s so hard, do you?

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  • Reply Nicole Sanford May 30, 2016 at 12:30 pm

    Great article Jennifer! I’m personally sick and tired of the FDA getting involved in every area of health and wellness. In my opinion, the things that pass FDA approval are the WORST products for you. From manufactured drugs created and pushed by big pharma and beyond. The FDA is essentially taping mouths shut on companies that actually make an effort to offer health encouraging options. Thanks for the insight on the new CRAZY regulations on the word “healthy”. 🙂

    • Reply Jennifer June 1, 2016 at 11:55 am

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Nicole! I am always very interested in the decisions the FDA makes, whether or not I agree with them because it has such a tremendous impact on the way food is marketed.

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