Sep 28, 2022 - Economy

FDA applying new limits to the term "healthy" on food products

Several proposed blue and white labels

These "healthy" food labels are among the optins the FDA was considering as of May. Photo: FDA

The Food and Drug Administration is poised to add new restrictions to the use of the term "healthy" on food products.

Driving the news: The agency on Wednesday announced a proposed rule that it said "would align the definition of the 'healthy' claim with current nutrition science," including the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

  • Under the current rule, about 5% of packaged foods are labeled as "healthy," according to the FDA.
  • “Healthy food can lower our risk for chronic disease. But too many people may not know what constitutes healthy food,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement. "FDA’s move will help educate more Americans to improve health outcomes, tackle health disparities and save lives.” 

Why it matters: More than 80% of U.S. residents "aren’t eating enough vegetables, fruit and dairy," while "most people consume too much added sugars, saturated fat and sodium," the FDA said.

Between the lines: The new rule would require that "healthy" foods:

  • "Contain a certain meaningful amount of food from at least one of the food groups or subgroups," such as fruits, vegetables and dairy.
  • Contain limited amounts of saturated fat, sodium and added sugars. For example, a "healthy" item cannot have more than 10% of the daily recommended amount of sodium per serving.

Be smart: The move appears targeted at certain items, like sugary cereal, that claim to be good for you.

  • The FDA noted in its 105-page proposed rule that some "ready-to-eat cereals that may be high in added sugars" are among the foods that, under the current federal definition, can be called healthy.

The other side: "[We] support efforts to enhance consumer choice and transparency," Roberta Wagner, vice president of regulatory and technical affairs for Consumer Brands Association, a trade group. "The definition is a first step that should be tested over time to ensure its intent of informing healthy choices is being met."

What's next: The FDA, which timed its announcement to coincide with the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, will:

  • Develop a front-of-package (FOP) labeling system governing health claims.
  • Issue voluntary guidelines recommending lower sodium content.
  • Conduct a public meeting to assess how to lower added sugar.

(Editor's note: This article was updated to include a comment from Consumer Brands Association, an industry trade group)

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