June 4, 2023

Making Sure ‘Healthy’ Means What It Says on Food Labels

Most consumers have learned to read food packages to learn about calorie counts, sodium amounts, and vitamin and mineral content in the foods they buy in the grocery store. But what about claims made on food packages? Does the term ‘healthy’ really mean what it says?

Healthy Meal

The FDA has published final rules on the Nutrition Facts label on food products. An updated label will make the calorie counts in the product and the serving sizes easier to see and will also provide more information on added sugars and the content of vitamin D and potassium in the food.

But even if you know something about nutrition and know what to look for on a food label, it can be difficult to know if the foods you buy add up to a healthy diet. Terms such as “good source,” “healthy,” or “low in fat” should only be used according to some rules.

Most people take only a few seconds to decide if they want to buy a particular food. Claims made on products can easily sway that decision, so the government is looking at how to define the claim “healthy.”

Food labels are constantly changing according to new nutritional information and guidelines. While producers in the past may have focused on the total amount of fat in a food, new public health recommendations state that the type of fat in a food is more important than the total amount. In addition, many consumers aren’t getting enough vitamin D or potassium, so labels are changing to reflect that fact and hopefully made a public health impact.

The FDA wants companies to use the claim of “healthy” to think about reformulating their products and to create new products. That will give consumers more choices in the grocery store.

So the government is asking for public input on some issues about what “healthy” should mean and how consumers use these terms on labels. Some of the questions are, what current dietary recommendations should be reflected in the  definition of “healthy?” What do consumers want in a food that is defined as healthy? And what factors should be used for the definition to be correct? For some consumers, “healthy” may mean low fat, but for others, the term may mean high in one or more nutrients per serving. The FDA is also evaluating other label claims and more information will be available in the future.

The guidance document, which the public can comment on, is set to advise manufacturers who want to use the term “healthy.” This guidance will advise food manufacturers of the government’s intent to exercise enforcement discretion relative to foods that use this term. The two main criteria for foods in this particular document are foods that are not low in total fat, but have a fat profile makeup of predominantly mono and polyunsaturated fats, or contain at least 10% of the Daily Value of potassium or vitamin D.

Guidance documents do not establish legally enforceable responsibilities on manufacturers. Instead, these documents describe the FDA’s current thinking on a topic and are only viewed as recommendations.

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