The FDA Is Redefining “Healthy” On Food Labels, But What Does Healthy Even Mean?

The government wants to let people know quickly that foods have the right nutrients, but no matter what they decide, a healthy diet will require more than just following the labels.

The FDA Is Redefining “Healthy” On Food Labels, But What Does Healthy Even Mean?
[Photo: Flickr user Arthur Hsu]

Say you want a healthy snack: Do you eat a Pop-Tart? Or a handful of almonds? According to today’s common sense on nutrition, the nuts are the clear choice. But according to the FDA’s official definition of “healthy,” which hasn’t been revised in more than 20 years (and sets limits for total fat but not any for sugar), those obnoxiously sweet frosted toaster pastries are the way to go.


In late September, the FDA decided that its regulated definition of “healthy” on food labeling–born during the sugar-industry-influenced war on fat of the 1990s–needed a refresh and opened up a public comment period. It’s been a busy few years for the FDA on the updating archaic science front: In 2015, it published new dietary guidelines, and this year, it revamped food nutrition labels to include added sugar.

[Photo: bhofack2/iStock]

“By updating the definition, we hope more companies will use the ‘healthy’ claim as the basis for new product innovation and reformulation, providing consumers with a greater variety of ‘healthy’ choices in the marketplace,” wrote the FDA’s Office of Nutrition and Food Labeling director Douglas Balentin in a blog post.

The “healthy” rethink was at least partly spurred by the FDA’s spat with the food brand Kind, the maker of nutty snack bars, last year. It told Kind to stop labeling its packages “healthy” because its bars exceeded the maximum of three grams of total fat. Kind responded with a petition that challenged how the FDA defined healthy, since the fat criteria exclude many health foods, including avocados, olives, and salmon.

[Photo: vmenshov/iStock]

As the FDA now reconsiders the definition, it’s also said in new guidelines to the industry that it won’t enforce the existing “healthy” rules for some foods. This includes some foods that don’t meet the low-fat criteria, as well as foods that don’t meet some of the existing nutrient criteria if they are high in potassium or vitamin D (two nutrients that Americans are most deficient in). Both of these changes reflect the FDA’s new 2015 dietary guidelines, which focus on healthy fats–instead of total fats–and call out the need for potassium and vitamin D.

But what should the “new” healthy definition be? This is a hard question, because the idea of healthiness is so subjective. According to a recent survey by Label Insight, a firm that has developed a large database of food labeling information, more than half of consumers say they now use their own personal definition to determine what foods are healthy. They’re skeptical of label claims and focused on different health issues, whether that’s losing weight, preventing heart disease, or dealing with a gluten sensitivity.

[Photo: vmenshov/iStock]

“Your version of healthy and my version of healthy are going to be completely different. To charge any institution or entity to come up with a definition that meets everyone’s conditions is impossible. One step in the right direction is to create a credible baseline,” says Dagan Xavier, Label Insight’s cofounder and vice president of customer intelligence.


Experts Co.Exist spoke with were happy with the new guidance that lets up on healthy fats and reconsidered nutrients of focus, but hoped the FDA will also add limits on added sugar. “Total fat isn’t the issue–too much sugar is the issue,” says Jim Painter, an adjunct professor and nutritional lecturer at the University of Texas School of Public Health.

But it should go further, says Megan Lott, a senior associate for Healthy Eating Research, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and try to emphasize minimally processed foods in some way and rethink sodium limits.

“You could have a 100-calorie snack pack that is low in added sugars, has no trans fats, but you can still argue–is that part of a healthy diet or not?,” she says. “You can slap that healthy sticker in front, but I worry about what that communicates to consumers who are less informed.”

The packaged food industry would likely take issue with that. The very foods that have a lot of packaging–and loudly rely on health-related marketing claims–are usually more processed. “Most people don’t need a healthy sticker on an apple,” Lott notes.

Critics have said maybe the term “healthy” shouldn’t be used at all, since it is inherently misleading. But others argue that a vetted “healthy” label has value for shoppers who don’t have the time or knowledge to scrutinize nutrition labels and ingredients. “People just need something simple to go by. They are not making mathematical decisions in the store,” says Xavier.

FDA’s new “healthy” definition, whatever its final outcome, could spur food companies to reformulate their products or start disclosing more information, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat content. With the new FDA industry guidelines, Label Insights says that 13% of food products in its 270,000-item database would now qualify as healthy up from 10.3% currently.


But it’s still not so clear if it’s working: One of the product categories with the biggest increase to a “healthy” claim? Peanut butter.

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.