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Four Nutritionists Weigh in on the FDA’s New Definition of “Healthy” 

On September 29th, 2022 the FDA proposed updating their definition of “healthy” food as part of their dietary guidelines, revising the criteria food manufacturers need to meet in order to legally label their food as “healthy” in the commercial setting.

The original guidelines for “healthy” food were created in 1994, and haven’t been updated since, and according to a few of the dieticians and nutritionists we spoke with, this move marks a notable attempt by the FDA to keep up with what nutritional science has known for a while.

TLDR: Added sugar is out and healthy fats like nuts, oils and salmon are in.

To help parse through the newly-proposed rules and what they mean for consumers we decided to panel four certified nutritionists and food experts. We asked each of them what this new definition means, the foods that do and don’t fall under the legally “healthy” label and asked for guidance for consumers trying to eat a healthy diet amidst a flurry of marketing messages.

Editor’s Note: SPY Editors are not healthcare professionals and can’t offer medical advice. Before augmenting your diet or lifestyle based on any piece of information in this post, please consult a medical professional. We do not support, condone or promote extreme dieting, and want to encourage every reader to do what’s best for their physical and mental health.

Why Does It Matter What’s “Healthy?”

The FDA offers guidance and science-backed recommendations on a range of health-related lifestyle choices, including diets, so they’re a great resource if you’re looking for hard data on healthy eating. They also offer legally-binding definitions for what’s “healthy,” which affects the products that can legally market themselves as good for you in grocery stores and online.

This new, stricter, definition means it’s going to be harder for certain foods to label themselves healthy and be filled with junk that’s less nutritionally beneficial for you.

The FDA also studies the state of modern American diets, and the picture isn’t pretty.

According to the latest FDA research, 75% of Americans have dietary patterns low in basic healthy foods like vegetables, fruits and dairy. 63% of people exceed the recommended limit for added sugars, 77% exceed the limit for saturated fat and 90% exceed the recommended limit for sodium by the Chronic Disease Risk Reduction task force.

As we’ll get into later, part of this has to do with the gaps in the FDA’s previous “healthy” definition, so part of the newly-proposed definition is placing limits on how much saturated fat, sodium and sugar foods can have to still qualify as “healthy” by the FDA.

The old definition, set nearly 20 years ago, had limits as well, but was misguided when it came to the dietary benefits of “fat” and noted that in order to qualify foods also had to contain at least “10% of the Daily Value (DV) for one or more of the following nutrients: vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein and fiber.”

“The FDA is working to update the definition of “healthy” that can be put on food labels. This is sorely needed because the previous definition was created in 1994 and over the past 2 decades, the science of nutrition and health has evolved greatly,” said Dr. William Li, an internationally-recognized medical doctor and researcher, the president and founder of the Angiogenesis Foundation and author of the New York Times bestselling novel Eat to Beat Disease.

The updated guidelines more closely reflect what we know to be true about nutritional science today, what our bodies need to stay healthy and how food can play a part in that. Of course, this new “healthy” definition guideline is just that, a guideline, and exactly what foods are “healthy” is individual based on each person and their unique body composition.

Stephanie Nelson, MS, RD and MyFitnessPal lead nutrition scientist noted that “an overall healthy dietary pattern can contain foods that do not meet the standards for the “healthy” claim. You can still eat cake, and also eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and maintain a healthy diet that lowers your risk for disease.”

Editor’s Note: SPY Editors are not healthcare professionals and can’t offer medical advice. Before augmenting your diet or lifestyle based on any piece of information in this post, please consult a medical professional. We do not support, condone or promote extreme dieting, and want to encourage every reader to do what’s best for their physical and mental health.

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What Is The FDA’s New Definition of “Healthy?”

“The new proposed definitions are focused on food groups that research data shows are healthy — such as fruits and vegetables, whole grain, nuts and seeds, beans and other legumes, eggs and seafood — and proposes to limit under the definition of health, dietary elements that in excess research has shown to be harmful — such as saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars,” said Dr. Li.

“Under the new rule, foods that now qualify (but didn’t before) include olive oil, eggs, salmon, and water.”

Under the new proposal, in order for a food to label itself as “healthy” on the front of its packaging it’ll need to:

  • Contain a specified “meaningful amount” of certain primary food groups and subgroups including fruit, vegetables and dairy
  • Not exceed limits for certain less beneficial nutrients including saturated fat, sodium and added sugars. According to the FDA “The threshold for the limits is based on a percent of the Daily Value (DV) for the nutrient and varies depending on the food and food group. The limit for sodium is 10% of the DV per serving (230 milligrams per serving).”

Here is a brief selection of foods as well as their sugar, sodium and saturated fat limits.

Courtesy of FDA

So, Which Foods Are “Healthy” Now?

This newly proposed definition doesn’t change a lot of nutrition best practices when it comes to what’s healthy: foods with whole ingredients you can pronounce, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and whole grains are still part of a well-balanced diet.

As mentioned above, there are certain foods that should’ve been definition “healthy” with the FDA before that weren’t, and now are, including nuts, salmon, avocado and other good saturated fats.

Dr. Dawn Sherling, Clinical Affiliate Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine at the Florida Atlantic University College of Medicine explained that “whole fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds are always healthy under the new FDA definition* (under the old definition that demonized naturally occurring fats–avocados and salmon were not allowed to be marketed as “healthy”–they are two excellent and very healthy foods!)” *Emphasis added

She went on to make an important distinction between different types of fat and why some are healthier than others.

“Importantly, the definition notes that if the unsaturated fat comes from nuts and seeds, that’s okay. It’s still healthy. Why? Because the fats and carbohydrates in fruits, vegetables, and nuts are digested differently by our bodies than when they come in the form of highly processed foods,” said Dr. Sherling.

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Which Foods No Longer Qualify As “Healthy?”

The FDA does not currently have publicly-disclosed plans to start labeling foods as “unhealthy,” like what has sparked a fierce debate in Europe, but some foods will be stripped of their legally “healthy” status as part of this proposed redefinition. The most popular product categories that are likely to see shifts in marketing are breakfast cereals, granola bars and other snacks that tend to be pumped with synthetic ingredients and artificial sweeteners.

Dr. Sherling pointed out that “One of the really bad actors that has successfully marketed itself as healthy over the years, but is the furthest thing from it, is a lot of breakfast cereals. Most are highly processed, full of additives, salt, and sugar–lots of sugar. And yet, they are able to claim to be healthy because of a bunch of vitamins thrown in there.”

“The new FDA definition will hopefully clean this up a bit so consumers can trust what’s on the box. Just adding a handful of vitamins isn’t going to cut it anymore. I’m hoping that in order for breakfast cereals to claim they are healthy, they are going to have to be less processed and have a lot less sugar.”

Nelson added that “sugary granola bars, high fat dairy, and high fat meats would not be eligible to have “healthy” claimed on the label.”

Anything that’s highly sweetened, as many breakfast foods are, will no longer qualify. It’s important to note that having a well-rounded diet does not mean only consuming foods deemed “healthy” by the FDA, as government agencies tend to have stricter guidelines than many practitioners.

A few of the nutritionists we spoke with added that while some foods are definitely “healthier” than others, nutrition science is always evolving, and a whole slew of factors can translate to your body’s definition of “healthy” being different than someone else’s. These can include dietary restrictions, allergies, taste preferences and the food you have access to and can afford.

Does This Mean You Have to Change Your Diet?

The exact answer to this question is going to vary person to person, but as you’ve hopefully picked up by now, this proposed definition update by the FDA does not mean you should go out and radically change your diet. It’s mostly a nudge in the right direction to avoid ultra-processed foods packed with sugar and synthetic ingredients.

Dr. Sherling noted that “The FDA is moving towards where medicine and nutrition have been moving the last decade–which is that whole foods are best, minimally processed foods are second best, and highly processed foods should not be a major part of our diets.”

Dr. Sherling also noted that the FDA’s outdated definition of healthy meant a lot of foods could falsely market themselves as nutritious to consumers, and this new definition will hopefully aid in collective nutrition through stricter guidelines.

“A person can think they are making healthy choices and can be trying really hard to do the right thing, but they are being undermined by marketing. I’m hopeful that the new FDA rules might help us to course correct a bit,” said Dr. Sherling.

Melanie R. Jordan, a nationally board-certified health and wellness coach, ACE-Certified Personal Trainer explained that while some foods will technically meet the requirements for “healthy,” it “doesn’t mean it can’t contain genetically modified ingredients, artificial sweeteners and preservatives. Plus, just because a product is labeled as “healthy” by FDA standards, it doesn’t mean there aren’t other foods that are better choices regardless.”

“In general, if you look for packaged foods with simple, whole food ingredients that you know what they are and can pronounce them, or are organic (which have different standards), and/or come from the outer aisles of a supermarket where most of the fresh food is, no label is required for you to know they are healthy!”

She finished with an important timeline for this ruling, and a reminder that once this definition is set into motion it’s voluntary.

“Keep in mind that this is all what is being proposed and is not in effect yet. Plus, even when it does go into effect, it is voluntary. The FDA is still taking comments from the public and food manufacturers who are trying to win the “halo effect” of healthy labeling through December 28th of this year.”

So, even if a food isn’t labeled as “healthy” it doesn’t mean it’s terrible for you or should be avoided. The purpose behind this definition is as much about marketing as it is about helping the American public make healthier choices.