FDA on Wednesday proposed new rules regarding what foods can be labeled as "healthy" on their packaging—a move that health officials hope will help consumers better understand nutrition labels and make better choices when buying food.
FDA proposes new 'healthy' food labels
On Wednesday, the White House hosted its first Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in over 50 years. The conference was focused on ending hunger, improving nutrition and physical activity, and reducing diet-related diseases in the United States by 2030. According to CDC, 60% of U.S. adults have chronic lifestyle-related diseases due to obesity and poor diet, and these diseases are a leading cause of death and disability.
Ahead of the conference, FDA announced proposed updated criteria for nutrition labels. Under the proposal, food manufacturers can only label their products "healthy" if they meet certain criteria, including:
- Containing a meaningful amount of food from at least one food group or subgroup (fruit, vegetable, dairy, etc.) recommended by current dietary guidelines
- Meet specific limits for certain nutrients (sodium, saturated fat, added sugar) based on a percent of the daily value for the nutrient
For example, a cereal would need to contain three-fourths of an ounce of whole grains and no more than one gram of saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium, and 2.5 grams of added sugar per serving to be eligible for a "healthy" label.
According to FDA, the proposal "would align the definition of the 'healthy' claim with current nutrition science," including the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
"Nutrition is key to improving our nation's health," said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. "Healthy food can lower our risk for chronic disease. But too many people may not know what constitutes healthy food. FDA's move will help educate more Americans to improve health outcomes, tackle health disparities and save lives."
How will food manufacturers be impacted by the change?
In a statement, the White House said that once FDA's new food labeling system is finalized, it will "quickly and easily communicate nutrition information" through tools such as "star ratings or traffic light schemes to promote equitable access to nutrition information and healthier choices."
In addition, the system may "prompt [the food] industry to reformulate their products to be healthier" by adding more vegetables or whole grains or creating new products to meet the new "healthy" definition, the White House said.
Peter Lurie, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that front-of-package labeling is promising and could motivate companies to change their products to gain healthier or more favorable ratings.
However, Lurie noted that a healthy definition and label should be very specific, or some companies may try to circumvent the system by "health-washing" certain products to appear healthier than they actually are.
For their part, food manufacturers say FDA's food labeling requirements will need to be reviewed and tested before they can be applied to manufacturers and presented to the public.
"The FDA's 'healthy' definition can succeed only if it is clear and consistent for manufacturers and understood by consumers," said Roberta Wagner, VP of regulatory and technical affairs at the Consumer Brands Association.
"The definition is a first step that should be tested over time to ensure its intent of informing healthy choices is being met," Wagner added.
In addition, Sean McBride, founder of DSM Strategic Communications and a former executive at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said FDA's proposed rule "will need to undergo significant review and revision to ensure it does not place the politics of food above science and fact."
"The details are critical because the final rule goes well beyond a simple definition by creating a de facto nutrition profile regulatory scheme that will dictate how food can be made for decades to come," McBride said. (Bomey, Axios, 9/29; Reiley, Washington Post, 9/28; FDA news release, 9/28)