FDA wants to know how you define “healthy”

The FDA wants to know how consumers view and use the Nutrition Facts label while purchasing foods; so much so that it is taking steps seeking public input on how the claim “healthy” is used on food packages. Noting that there are various terms on food packages such as “healthy,” “low in fat,”or “good source,” the FDA recognized that many consumers do not have the time to consider the details of nutrition information on every package purchased. In fact, most purchase decisions are made quickly, within three to five seconds.

The agency’s interest extends to questions such as: (1) what current dietary recommendations should be reflected in the definition of “healthy;” (2) what are the public health benefits of defining the term “healthy;” (3) what do consumers expect of foods that carry a “healthy” claim; and (4) what factors and criteria should be used for the new definition of “healthy.” Future public forums will explore these topics. The FDA will also begin the process of evaluating other label claims in order to modernize food labels in a manner that consumers find useful.

The public input is in part due to concerns that food manufacturers were not complying with requirements permitting content claims. In 2015, the FDA issued a warning letter to Kind, saying the food manufacturer could not claim its fruit and nut bars were healthy because they contained too much saturated fat and because it described the antioxidant content as healthy despite no medical definition to back up the claim. Following receipt of the closeout letter, Kind requested confirmation that it could use the phrase “healthy and tasty” only in text referencing its corporate policy. The FDA did not object, as long as Kind did not use those terms on the same display panel as nutrient content claims or nutrition information.

While the FDA is considering how to redefine the term “healthy” as a nutrient content claim, food manufacturers can continue to use the term “healthy” on foods that meet the current regulatory definition as the agency does not intend to enforce the regulatory requirements for products that use the term if certain criteria described in a newly published guidance document are met.