The Food and Drug Administration has not updated its guidelines for what constitutes “healthy” food for 30 years, and it’s safe to say that food science has come a long way in those three decades. A much-needed update could finally happen next year thanks to some proposed changes.
The Biggest Changes
The FDA recently proposed an update that would redefine healthy to be “consistent with current nutrition science and federal dietary guidance.” The update would be consistent with the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the upgraded nutrition facts label that debuted about a year ago when the FDA began listing added sugars, vitamin D, potassium, and more on the nutrition label.
The focus of this new categorization would be on food groups rather than individual nutrients, and foods will need certain qualifications to be labeled healthy.
This new definition would line up with what healthcare professionals already tell their patients when it comes to focusing on overall health: eat good fats, avoid saturated fats, and limit added sugars.
Specifically, the FDA’s proposed change would require the following qualifications to be met for a food product to get a healthy label.
- It must “contain a certain meaningful amount of food from at least one of the food groups or subgroups (e.g., fruit, vegetable, dairy, etc.) recommended by the Dietary Guidelines.”
- It must contain a limited amount of saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. “The threshold for the limits is based on a percent of the daily value (DV) for the nutrient and varies depending on the food and food group. The limit for sodium is 10% of the DV per serving (230 milligrams per serving).”
The change will no longer account for a food’s total fat. Research has shown that low overall fat shouldn’t be the goal of a healthy diet—it’s about eating enough healthy fats and less unhealthy (saturated) fats.
Under the current guidelines, fatty fish and avocados don’t qualify as healthy, but they will with the new guidelines. Other foods that will be considered healthy include nuts, seeds, eggs, tuna, anchovies, and olive oil. Nutritionists say it’s all a huge step forward and a long-overdue correction
“Under the proposed definition, raw whole fruits and vegetables would automatically qualify for the ‘healthy’ claim because of their nutrient profile and positive contribution to an overall healthy diet,” the FDA explained in a press release.
On the flip side, foods like white bread, cereals, and yogurts that are high in sugar currently qualify as “healthy,” but with these changes, they no longer will.
Making Healthy Eating Easier
The FDA’s goal is to make healthy eating less complicated by educating and empowering consumers.
“The proposed rule is part of the agency’s ongoing commitment to helping consumers improve nutrition and dietary patterns to help reduce the burden of chronic disease and advance health equity,” according to the FDA press release.
And the FDA hopes the new guidelines will “help foster a healthier food supply” and encourage manufacturers to develop more nutritional products.
The agency is also working on a new healthy symbol to appear on foods that meet their criteria. Here again, the aim is to help shoppers easily identify nutritious choices.
For many of us, these changes will confirm what many of us already know—that nutrient-rich foods are good for us. But these new guidelines and symbols will add the government’s stamp of approval, plus a visual cue.
In the future, the FDA also hopes to develop a front-of-package labeling system to make nutritional information even more obvious both at the supermarket and online.