US FDA rewriting rules on what 'healthy' foods mean

Most of us would be surprised to be told that a sugary cereal could be healthy but not almonds, avocados or and salmon.

But the science of healthy eating has changed since the US Food and Drug Administration wrote the current guidelines in the 1990s. Believe it or not, none of the foods mentioned above would be considered "healthy" under the FDA's current guidelines.

Under the current rules, "healthy" foods must meet given government criteria on fat, saturated fat, sodium, cholesterol and nutrients. Now the FDA is beginning the process of redefining what "healthy" means.

"Consumers want to make informed food choices and it is the FDA's responsibility to help them by ensuring labels provide accurate and reliable nutrition information. In light of evolving nutrition research, the forthcoming Nutrition Facts Labeling final rules, and a citizen petition, we believe now is an opportune time to re-evaluate regulations concerning nutrient content claims, generally, including the term 'healthy'. We plan to solicit public comment on these issues in the near future," the FDA said in a statement.

For years, the FDA has been under pressure to define what a "natural" food is.

"People have a very hard time processing a lot of information. The simpler we can make it, the more we can make it very easy and accessible for the consumer, the more it actually ends up doing some good and impacting what people choose," Professor David Just, a food economist at Cornell University, told NBC News.

Consumer reports say 73 per cent of shoppers look for the word "natural"-believing it means no artificial ingredients, chemicals, pesticides or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But in fact, there is no universal definition or regulation for the word "natural."

"And with no standards and no verification in place, that label can pretty much mean what any manufacturer or company wants it to mean," said Urvashi Rangan, a Consumer Reports researcher.

The FDA currently allows use of the term "healthy" on packaging only when products meet certain nutrient criteria, which largely revolve around limited levels of fat, cholesterol and sodium.

The issue captured attention last year after the FDA sent a warning letter to the maker of Kind fruit-and-nut bars saying the company's products should not be labelled as healthy because of their saturated fat levels.

Kind then sought a re-evaluation of the term's definition from the FDA, noting the fat in its bars comes from nuts. It noted the FDA's rules prevent avocados and salmon from being labelled healthy, while allowing the term for fat-free puddings and sugary cereals.

After some back-and-forth on the matter, the FDA told Kind in an email last month that it did not object to the company's use of the term "healthy and tasty" on its bar wrappers. The FDA said it is allowing use of the phrase framed as a "corporate philosophy," rather than as a nutrient content claim.

Changing trends
The move to rethink "healthy" comes as dietary trends have shifted, with more people expressing concern about sugar and questioning low-fat or low-calorie diets. But any change in the term's regulatory definition could take years. The FDA's final rule on gluten-free labelling, for instance, took more than six years to complete

In a statement on Tuesday, the FDA also noted that foods that do not meet all the current regulatory criteria for the term "healthy" are not necessarily unhealthy.

"Conversely, just because a food contains certain ingredients that are considered good for you, such as fruit or nuts, it does not mean that the food can bear a 'healthy' nutrient content claim," the FDA said.

The FDA said that Susan Mayne, director of its Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, discussed the agency's plans to revisit the term "healthy" at conferences in recent weeks. The agency's plans were reported in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.

Last month, the House of Representatives also said in a report accompanying its agriculture appropriations bill that it expects the FDA to amend its regulation for "healthy" claims to be based on scientific agreement.