FDA To Reconsider Definition Of “Healthy” On Food Labels

Image courtesy of Camilo Rueda López

When you see a some food marketed as “healthy” or “natural,” do you know exactly what, if anything, those terms mean? The Food and Drug Administration has decided to rethink its requirements for what it takes to market a product as “healthy,” while advocates and lawmakers are pushing the agency to define “natural” in a way that more people would understand.

The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press report that the FDA’s reconsideration of the healthy food labels comes in the wake of a challenge from Kind LLC, the makers of fruit-and-nut bars.

In March 2015, the FDA sent Kind a warning letter, advising the company that two of its products were in violation of federal food labeling laws because they didn’t meat the federal standard for using the term “healthy.”

In order to meet that definition, the bars would have needed to meet FDA-established maximum limits for levels of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and minimum amounts of certain nutrients.

Kind made changes to its labels come within compliance of the FDA labeling standards, resulting in the agency recently closing out its warning against the company, but the bar-makers have also petitioned [PDF] the FDA to rethink its stance on “healthy,” noting that the existing standards prevent a number of foods that many people consider healthy — including nuts, avocados, olives, and salmon — from being labeled that way.

“FDA formulated those regulations more than 20 years ago, when available science and federal dietary recommendations focused on limiting total fat intake,” argued the petition. “Today, these regulations still require that the majority of foods featuring a ‘healthy’ nutrient content claim meet ‘low fat’ and ‘low saturated fat’ standards regardless of their nutrient density. This is despite the fact that current science no longer supports those standards.”

Now the FDA has confirmed that it is indeed reconsidering these standards and will seek public comment on what factors should be used when determining whether something can be labeled “healthy.”

A rep for the agency explained to the Journal that “we believe now is an opportune time to reevaluate regulations concerning nutrient content claims, generally, including the term ‘healthy.’”

The FDA did not give a specific timeline on when it would begin the process of rethinking the “healthy” label, other than to say it would happen “in the near future.”

While it’s at it, the FDA might want to rethink its definition for the term “natural,” as a new survey from our colleagues at Consumer Reports shows that a large majority of Americans don’t know what the term means when it comes to food labels.

That’s because, unlike the term “organic,” which has very specific standards for being used on a label, “natural” is a vague word whose use is not specifically regulated.

And yet, according to the CR survey results, 73% of consumers seek out foods labeled “natural,” while only 58% look for “organic.”

Around two-thirds of survey respondents believe the natural label means more than it does, with nearly half of them incorrectly believing that “natural” claims on food labels must be independently verified. Meanwhile, a majority of shoppers believe that “natural” foods should contain no artificial ingredients or processing aids, no toxic pesticides or no genetically modified ingredients.

The CR survey comes on the heels of a letter [PDF] sent yesterday by lawmakers to FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, urging the agency to finally get around to defining “natural.”

Citing the results of the CR survey, the letter — signed by Senators Richard Blumenthal (CT), Frank Pallone (NJ), Ed Markey (MA), and Rosa DeLauro (CT) — argue that “Any rule should clear up these misconceptions” about what natural means. At the very least, the lawmakers believe that the use of “natural” should preclude the use of “any artificial foods, ingredients, or synthetic substances.”

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