Salmon can’t actually be marketed as “healthy” under current FDA guidelines, despite being recommended as a good source of protein in the government’s own most recent dietary guidelines. Neither can almonds or avocados.
The labeling rules around “healthy” haven’t been revisited in over 20 years, even though our understanding of healthy eating habits has changed considerably since then.
That’s why the FDA announced this week that it will reevaluate the definition of “healthy,” seeking to bring labeling up-to-date with modern understanding and current science. Depending on the final rule, the change could have a huge impact on how food can be marketed to consumers.
Under the FDA’s current rule, food can only be labeled as healthy if it’s below a certain threshold in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Meanwhile, any regulation on sugar content is conspicuously absent.
Congress has been pushing the FDA to focus on food labeling. In the report accompanying its latest appropriations bill, the House Committee on Agriculture urged the regulator to update its rules around the use of the word “healthy” so that it would be “based upon significant scientific agreement.”
Some food companies are also unhappy with the current labeling standards. KIND LLC, makers of fruit-and-nut bars, started a campaign last year to get the FDA to update its labeling to reflect the evolution of food science.
On Tuesday, the FDA said it will allow KIND to continue to use the word “healthy” on their packaging under the current regulations — as long as it doesn’t constitute a nutrition claim.
“In our discussions with KIND, we understood the company’s position as wanting to use ‘healthy and tasty’ as part of its corporate philosophy, as opposed to using ‘healthy’ in the context of a nutrient content claim,” the agency said in a statement.
These kinds of fine legal lines, however, can be confusing to consumers.
As more and more Americans are trying to make eating decisions based on sound nutrition, marketers are proclaiming their foods as “antioxidant,” “whole-grain,” “heart-healthy,” “gluten-free,” and “natural” — nutrition buzzwords that are largely meaningless in terms of nutritional value, or, in the case of “healthy,” are 20 years out of date.
It’s an issue of more than semantics. A 2014 study showed that people are more likely to rate foods labeled with these buzzwords as healthy, overlooking other nutrition warnings on the packaging. In general, consumers are easily swayed by the way that food is marketed. Research has also shown that people are more likely to assume that products labeled with green labels are more nutritious, and that “fair-trade” chocolate is healthier — even though fair-trade is a label applied to the manufacturing process, not the nutritional quality of the product.
“Natural” has been a particular sticking point. Despite a growing demand for “natural” products, the term isn’t officially regulated. “Natural” labels have been slapped on everything from goldfish to low-calorie Skinnygirl Margaritas, only to be met with a rising tide of class-action lawsuits from disgruntled consumers — and their eager lawyers — alleging fraud. In response, the FDA is currently trying to decide how the term should be regulated.
Most of the comments the FDA has received are from individuals worried about additives, preservatives, antibiotic use in animals and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and chemicals. At present, a natural label doesn’t actually mean anything with regards to these concerns. According to independent product testing, the majority of products labeled “natural” actually contain GMOs. And, nearly all packaged foods contain preservatives by necessity.
If the FDA does come up with an official rule for “natural,” it’ll be the first time it has a set meaning. However, that could still be years away — as could the final rule on the updated meaning of “healthy.”