FDA Updates Definition of 'Healthy'

By Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor

Sep 30, 2016

The Food and Drug Administration, Washington, has released a guidance document that updates how it defines the nutrient content claim “healthy.” The agency says it issued the temporary guidance in order to make it consistent with the final FDA Nutrition Facts Panel rule published in May.

“In particular, we intend to exercise enforcement discretion with respect to the current requirement that any food bearing the nutrient content claim ‘healthy’ meet the low fat requirement provided that … the amounts of mono- and polyunsaturated fats are declared on the label and … the amounts declared constitute the majority of the fat content,” the FDA stated.

In addition, the FDA plans to ask the public as well as food experts for comments on what should be the modern definition of healthy, starting a process that could take years to complete. But the move to redefine the term marks a major step in the FDA’s effort to keep pace with changing ideas about health and eating habits.

Food manufacturers can continue to use the term healthy on foods that meet the current regulatory definition, the FDA stated in a news release. Under the updated guidelines, food can only be marketed as healthy if it meets five criteria: fat; saturated fat; sodium; cholesterol; and beneficial nutrients, such as vitamin C or calcium. The levels differ by food category, but snacks generally can’t have more than 3g of fat.

In addition, the agency said it will enforce the current requirement that any food labeled healthy contain at least 10 percent of the daily value (DV) per recommended amount customarily consumed (RACC) of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein or fiber, if the food instead contains at least 10 percent of the DV per RACC of potassium or vitamin D.

The declaration of potassium and vitamin D content was added to the updated Nutrition Facts Panel final rule published May 20 in the Federal Register. The declaration of vitamin A and vitamin C content will no longer be required.

When the term healthy was first officially defined in 1994, low fat content was the main focus of health professionals.

If the FDA changes its definition of healthy for everyone else, it likely will first propose updating the healthy definition, followed by a comment period in which food makers and the public can submit their ideas and research on what healthy means, explains a report in the Wall Street Journal. Then comes the FDA’s proposed rule change, another comment period, the final rule and an implementation period, to give food makers time to comply. The process typically takes several years, according to the WSJ report. Some of the costs to manufacturers could go toward changing ingredients and hiring lawyers and lobbyists to keep up with the changing rule.

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