Currently the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires food labels for most prepared foods including cereals, canned and frozen foods, and pre-packaged snacks. This requirement falls under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and was intended to help consumers better understand what they might consume. June 2018, changes were made to food labels to highlight aspects such as the amount of added sugar, total calories, serving sizes and more.
September 28th, 2022, the FDA announced a proposal to bring further clarity to what constitutes “healthy” foods. We’ve shared how food terms like “low sugar”, “natural”, “healthy”, and others are used relatively freely on food- the guidelines for when they can be used are loose. This shift from the FDA signals a positive turn in helping the public discern what foods are beneficial without having to spend hours learning the exact details of what each food term encompasses. The FDA’s press release states, “Today’s action is just one part of the agency’s ongoing commitment to reduce diet-related chronic diseases and advance health equity”.
Up until this past month, food terms could be slapped on foods with little to no restriction. Even the term “healthy” only required that foods met two criteria:
1-The item(s) are not low in total fat, but have a fat profile makeup of predominantly mono and polyunsaturated fats
2- Contain at least ten percent of the Daily Value (DV) per reference amount customarily consumed (RACC) of potassium or vitamin D.
Non-fat yogurt is a great example of a food many consider a healthy choice and is often marketed as such. But even if a consumer picks a non-fat option, the amount of sugar often found in yogurt typically negates any benefit. Another food often thought to be healthy and sold as an alternative to sweet pastries are bran muffins. One source shared that the average doughnut shop bran muffin has almost 400 calories and 36 grams (9 teaspoons) of sugar — but only 4 grams of fiber. That muffin could be nearly 25% of a 2,000 calorie daily intake and maxes out the daily recommended amount of sugar intake for men and women (6 teaspoons/day for women and 9 teaspoons/day for men). These are just two examples in a sea of foods marketed as “healthy” when they’re anything but.
The proposal from the FDA also aims to overhaul other aspects of the current labeling system. Currently, some foods that are recommended by the government issued Dietary Guidelines aren’t allowed to be labeled as “healthy” by the FDA, such as salmon, nuts and seeds, and even water. The new recommendation would allow their inclusion, and that of other similar foods, as they offer a variety of benefits that support our health. Salmon, for example, is high in fat- leading it to be excluded from currently being labeled as “healthy”. But as we’ve shared before, there are significant differences between dietary fats and how they benefit our bodies (or don’t). The fats found in salmon are polyunsaturated called Omega-3 fatty acids which can help prevent heart disease, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, and may provide a protective role against some cancers and other diseases.
An example of the intent behind the updates is:
“. . .to include the “healthy” claim on the package, a cereal would need to contain a certain amount of whole grains and adhere to limits for saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.”
The press release regarding the proposed update also shares that the FDA is seeking to create a logo that will help consumers easily identify healthy foods. In addition to the proposal by the FDA, also in late September 2022, the Biden Administration proposed that nutrition labels be put on the front of packages, rather than the back. A senior administration official was quoted as saying that it is part of an effort “to shift our health care system away from just treating disease to preventing it,” reported NBC News.
These adjustments are a positive move towards empowering people to better understand what is in the foods they consume. This is just one facet of what needs to be addressed when it comes to wellness. In addition to increasing nutritional awareness, further highlighting the importance of physical activity, and how other aspects (e.g. sleep, hydration, gut health) significantly impact our wellness is key to improve the health of Americans as a whole.