U.S. FDA Updates Its Definition of ‘Healthy’ Foods

Some familiar foods may lose their ‘healthy’ status as the FDA updates its definition of healthy. The new definition is based on total fat, sugars and salt. Some naturally fatty foods will be exempt. But some ‘healthy’ cereals could be demoted…

Corn Flakes - © schaer.comCorn Flakes: The original breakfast cereal (after Oatmeal, of course).
Created by Dr. Kellogg in Battle Creek, Michigan, as an
ultra-healthy food for recuperating patients, it’s
now being stripped of its ‘healthy’ label…

Sounds reasonable at first glance…

According to a September 28, 2022, FDA news release:

“Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed updated criteria for when foods can be labeled with the nutrient content claim “healthy” on their packaging. This proposed rule would align the definition of the ‘healthy’ claim with current nutrition science, the updated Nutrition Facts label and the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The news release further explains:

“Under the proposed definition, in order to be labeled with the ‘healthy’ claim on food packaging, the products would need to:

  • 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.
  • Adhere to specific limits for certain nutrients, such as 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 percent of the DV per serving (230 milligrams per serving).”

A ubiquitous example

The official example provided to illustrate the new standards is breakfast cereal:

“For example, a cereal would need to contain ¾ ounces of whole grains and contain no more than 1 gram of saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium and 2.5 grams of added sugars [to be considered healthy].”

So it’s not surprising that the mainstream media have seized upon this example as the basis for their versions of the story. They make hay of the revelation that certain iconic brands formerly considered healthy will not rate that label under the new rules:

  • Raisin Bran (9 grams of added sugars)
  • Honey Nut Cheerios (12 grams of added sugars)
  • Corn Flakes (300 milligrams of sodium; 4 grams of added sugars)
  • Honey Bunches of Oats, Honey Roasted (8 grams of added sugars)
  • Frosted Mini Wheats (12 grams of added sugars)
  • Life (8 grams of added sugars)
  • Special K (270 milligrams of sodium; 4 grams of added sugars)

Most of those examples violate the sugar content clause of the new rules. But who would have imagined brands like Raisin Bran, Corn Flakes, Life and Special K would drop off the healthy list?

Specific goals

The FDA says the new definition of ‘healthy’ is intended as a cornerstone of its overall policy to help raise consumer awareness of the relative healthfulness of foods, and educate shoppers on how to leverage the plentiful information on food package labels – particularly processed an ultra-processed foods.

“Healthy eating patterns are associated with improved health, yet most people’s eating patterns do not align with current dietary recommendations,” said Susan Mayne, PhD, director of the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “In addition to today’s action, we continue to advance a number of FDA initiatives and explore new ways to coordinate, leverage and amplify important work going on across the nutrition ecosystem to help improve people’s diets and make a profound impact on the health of current and future generations.”

Chief among these is a new system of front-of-package symbols giving shoppers a quick reference to the relative healthfulness of foods. This follows a lead taken by other Western nations after unveiling their own updated daily nutrition guides over the past couple of years.

My take

The preamble to the news release reminds readers: “More than 80 percent of people in the U.S. aren’t eating enough vegetables, fruit and dairy. And most people consume too much added sugar, saturated fat and sodium.” The new definition of ‘healthy’ and new symbols should go a long way towards promoting healthier eating among the masses. If only because they’ll make it quicker and more convenient for folks to check out food packages…

~ Maggie J.