The FDA is Facing an Uphill Climb in Defining What “Healthy” Food Means
As more people pay attention to what they eat, food manufacturers are trying to convince buyers that their products are healthy. But what does “healthy” really mean as it applies to food? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in the process of changing the way it defines the word in response to Americans’ growing knowledge of nutrition science, fueling debate about what the new standards should be.
Frozen food-makers want to convince the public that foods such as mini pizza bagels and dumplings count as healthy options and are seeking special rules from the FDA to do so. Chewing gum and bottled water companies want in on the deal, too, saying they shouldn’t be excluded from using the word “healthy” just because their products contain no nutrients (lol). Advocacy groups and health professionals are also weighing in, expressing concerns over ingredients like added sugar.
The problem is that the word “healthy” can be misleading when applied to a single product versus an overall diet. Carrots, for example, are healthy, but it’s not healthy to live on a diet of nothing but carrots.
The Evolving Science of Nutrition
The current federal standards for the word date back to 1994, but only establish limits on total fat and cholesterol.
Susan Mayne, head of the FDA’s food labeling division, said the definition is based on outdated nutrition science and needs to be revamped.
“This is one that the federal agencies will stand behind.”
The controversy surrounding the definition began late in 2015 when the FDA warned Kind that its snack bars were too fat-laden to carry the term on its labels. In turn, Kind argued that the bars were, indeed, healthy because the fat came from nuts.
There are “good fats” – such as those found in nuts – and “bad fats,” such as partially hydrogenated trans fats, which are created through an industrial processed meant to extend the shelf life of the products they are contained in.
In fact, in 2015, the FDA began requiring food companies to start phasing trans fats out of their products.
Additionally, more than 20 years ago, scientists and nutritionists warned that high levels of dietary cholesterol could cause heart disease, but that link is no longer clear.
Separate U.S. dietary guidelines, updated every 5 years, no longer set limits on total fat or cholesterol. They do, however, recommend avoiding trans fats and limiting saturated fats, such as those found in meat and milk. But the link between saturated fats and heart disease is also up for debate now, too.
The main dietary health concern is sugar, which was once believed to only cause hyperactivity and cavities. In the 1960’s, the sugar industry paid Harvard scientists to author studies that purported to show that those were the only health risks posed by sugar.
The real danger, the unscrupulous scientists claimed, was fat. And, so, it wasn’t long before low-fat and no-fat products were flying off store shelves. The sugar industry profited greatly from the misinformation; most low-fat foods contain about 20% more sugar than full-fat foods.
Today scientists and nutritionists know that cavities and hyperactivity are the least serious health risks posed by sugar consumption. It is now understood that a diet high in sugar can cause obesity in both children and adults, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes. Sugar has also been shown to fuel cancer.
However, since most food studies are based on what participants report about their own diet and health, it has been difficult for researchers to establish cause-and-effect relationships. The lack of solid evidence has been the gasoline fueling the fiery debate over what foods should be considered “healthy.”
Of course the larger issue lies within corporate greed, where studies are often funded by companies to achieve desired results, while those in political power are given incentives to make decisions in the interest of business and profits. But I digress.
Much Ado About Nothing?
When the FDA announced in 2016 that it was seeking input on how to define the word, it received more than 1,400 comments from the public. The next step is for the agency to propose a new definition and follow it up with another comment period. The FDA won’t say when it expects to establish a final rule for the new definition.
Another part of the problem is that the word “healthy” means different things to different people. There is the paleo diet, the gluten-free diet, and organic and vegan diets. Then there are those who are mostly concerned with the presence of genetically engineered ingredients in their food.
The Sierra Club wants foods made with GMO ingredients to be excluded from the heading of “healthy,” while the National Pasta Association wants gluten-free pasta to be called “healthy.” As it stands, some nutrition experts say gluten-free pasta falls short of the nutrient requirements.
On and on it goes, and regulators are tasked with the tough job of sorting through the science, opinions, and lobbying that goes into making such a monumental decision.
In addition to limiting fat and cholesterol, the current standard requires the presence of nutrients like calcium, fiber, iron or vitamin C. It’s partly why bottled water and sugar-free gum companies are currently excluded. Unfairly so, they argue.
In the end, the definition might not even matter. Companies will just reformulate their products to meet the new standards, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) argues.
It would behoove the companies to do so: The FDA is mulling creating a symbol that would simplify the process of identifying products that meet the new definition.
Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.