Redefining ‘healthy’ a positive step for F.D.A. and the industry

by Keith Nunes
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The Food and Drug Administration is opening for public comment ways for the agency to improve its definition of “healthy” as a labeling claim. The move is a positive step toward updating and bringing labeling regulations closer to accepted nutrition science. It is even more welcome to hear the agency will evaluate other label claims to determine how they may be revised to better align with current nutrition science. At a time when the phrase health and wellness often is defined by perception, any effort to substantively focus on nutrition and the nutritional content of food and beverages is a sign of progress.

This process began with the F.D.A.’s updating of the Nutrition Facts Panel and serving size information for packaged foods in an effort to reflect new scientific information, including the link between diet and such chronic conditions as obesity and heart disease. That final rule was published May 27, and now the agency is working to bring other labeling regulations into alignment with the new Nutrition Facts Panel criteria.

Public health recommendations for various nutrients have evolved, as reflected by the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the updated Nutrition Facts Panel. For example, healthy dietary patterns now focus on food groups, the type of fat rather than the total amount of fat consumed and now address added sugars in the diet. Also, the nutrients of public health concern as defined by inadequate consumer intake, have changed.

“As our understanding about nutrition has evolved, we need to make sure the definition for the ‘healthy’ labeling claim stays up to date,” said Douglas Balentine, Ph.D., director of the Office of Nutrition and Food Labeling at the F.D.A.’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, when the F.D.A. made its announcement. “For instance, the most recent public health recommendations now focus on type of fat, rather than amount of fat. They focus on added sugars, which consumers will see on the new Nutrition Facts label. And they focus on nutrients that consumers aren’t getting enough of, like vitamin D and potassium.

“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.”

The concept of health and wellness in recent years as related to eating habits has transitioned from one focused on nutrition with the goal of maintaining a healthy weight and consuming the appropriate amount of nutrients to a more holistic approach to health. More recently, consumer interest in the nutrient value of foods has been superseded by the perceived quality of the specific ingredients in a product. One only has to look at the changes such leading brands as Special K and Lean Cuisine have undergone during the past 10 years to see first-hand how the consumer’s definition of health and wellness has evolved.

Yet as the definition of health and wellness has evolved the incidence of such issues of concern as obesity, heart disease, and the many chronic issues associated with said conditions continues to remain stubbornly high. As these maladies have taken a toll on communities, municipalities have attempted to shape food and beverage consumption patterns through local labeling initiatives and taxation.

Nutrition science has made meaningful strides over the past two decades, since the last time the Nutrition Facts Panel was updated, and food and beverage manufacturers have been at the forefront of using the knowledge to improve the nutritional content of many products. The latest Nutrition Facts Panel update process was marked by controversy over changes many in the industry believe were not solidly grounded in science. It is hoped the F.D.A.’s labeling initiatives will bring the definition of health and wellness closer to nutrition science and away from a focus on perception and production claims.

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