What does ‘healthy’ mean? The FDA aims to find out
Friday, October 14, 2016
The food and beverage industry is abuzz with news of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's recent decision to redefine the term "healthy" on food labels. In a bid to empower the consumer with information that is more accurate and helpful, the FDA is not only reworking the regulations but also asking for public input.
Public health officials believe this collaborative effort will lead to better information and help consumers make more informed decisions. They hope that proper labeling will lead to healthier food choices as well as development of healthier foods by the F&B industry.
For now, food manufacturers can follow the current regulatory definition if they want to use the term "healthy" in their nutrient label claims. With the open-source public study initiated by the FDA, the definition may evolve to a completely new one by next summer. However, the agency did state that it will not enforce the regulatory actions for products that met the certain required criteria in the guidance document.
A study of food labels reveals an interesting history. Instead of ingredients and their amounts, the focus is now on food groups, added sugars and types of fats. All these are aimed at helping the consumer make better food choices that are consistent with public health recommendations.
Yet simple terms like "healthy" and "natural" have been quite misleading when it comes to establishing healthy dietary patterns. These terms imply a good and safe choice, but are in reality wide open for interpretation. Natural doesn't mean organic, and healthy doesn't necessarily mean low-fat, low-calorie or low-sugar. At the same time, these do not mean dangerous or unhealthy either.
They are subjective definitions that can cause big problems.
So what sparked the latest label change need? It was a debate with KIND granola bars, which prints "healthy and tasty" on it labels — a tag the FDA asked the company to remove. Eventually, the two came to a mutual decision to keep it, but the incident prompted the agency to revisit and revamp the definition of the term.
A more clear definition for "natural" and "healthy" will help food advertisers and manufacturers create more transparent labels and follow guidelines better, and in the process help consumers.
With increasing options on the aisles, information on food labels has become confusing. Too many choices and not enough time — this is our reality. Add the convenience of easy-to-make ready meals, and our food choices have become unhealthier than ever.
We see the effects in rising obesity and related health conditions worldwide. It is important, therefore, that these terms be evaluated and kept on par with changing times. Detailed information on nutritional fact labels will be a better tool to make decisions that best match these changing lifestyle needs.
It's not just enough to choose a low-fat product; we need to know the different kinds of fats and nutrients each body type needs. As mentioned above, instead of the amount of sugar as a whole, it may be more beneficial to know the amount of natural sugar vs. added sugar, etc. Even information about minerals is important, as one may be deficient in some and allergic to the other, or risk drug interactions.
Instead of generic "healthy" claims like we have now, the FDA hopes revamping the term will lead to new product innovation and reformulation.
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