FDA’s proposed definition of “healthy” a step forward but benefits to consumers will be limited

A woman reading food item packaging

Charlize D/peopleimages.com/stock.adobe.com.

Front-of-package nutrition labeling would reach more shoppers, be more effective

The Food and Drug Administration’s newly proposed definition of “healthy” is a substantial improvement over the status quo, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The nonprofit nutrition and food safety watchdog group today praised the agency’s sensible new limits for added sugars, and new minimum levels of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dairy, and/or protein, in products that would bear the voluntary “healthy” marketing claim. The proposal would also allow water and no- or low-calorie carbonated water to qualify as “healthy” beverages. 

Despite the much-needed improvements to the definition of “healthy,” CSPI told the FDA in comments submitted to the agency today that the proposal could be improved by strengthening the whole grain, fruit, and vegetable requirements, and by ensuring that terms like “wholesome,” “nutritious,” and “heart healthy,” are considered implied “healthy” claims.  

However, even with additional improvements, the actual benefits of the “healthy” claim to consumers would be limited. According to the FDA, about 15 percent of products qualify for the current definition of “healthy,” and less than five percent actually bear the claim. The agency further estimates that after the improvements are implemented, only four percent of foods in the grocery store might carry the claim. 

Besides focusing on updating the parameters for making voluntary “healthy” claims on foods, the FDA should prioritize a more effective intervention: requiring mandatory, front-of-package nutrition labels that alert consumers when a food is high in sodium, added sugars, or saturated fat. 

“While the FDA’s proposed definition of ‘healthy’ is an improvement, the term is best understood as a marketing claim, and a voluntary one at that,” said CSPI senior policy scientist Eva Greenthal. “Companies are already skilled at marketing the purported health benefits of their products. But what about the information they don't want you to know? FDA should focus on mandatory measures to ensure companies highlight both the nutritional benefits and drawbacks of their products.”  

Last August, CSPI, the Association of SNAP Nutrition Education Administrators, and the Association of State Public Health Nutritionists filed a citizen’s petition with FDA asking the agency to design a front-of-package nutrition labeling system. In September, the Biden administration indicated it would prioritize front-of-package nutrition labeling as part of the National Strategy on Nutrition, Hunger, and Health it released in advance of a landmark White House conference on those topics. 

In January of this year, the FDA released images of the front-of-package icons it intends to subject to consumer testing. 

Evidence shows that interpretive front-of-package nutrition labeling can improve consumer understanding and encourage healthier diets. Front-of-package nutrient warnings indicating excess levels of over-consumed nutrients have been particularly effective in experimental settings at prompting consumers to select healthier foods. And dozens of countries, including Canada, Mexico, Chile, and more, have already implemented interpretive front-of-package nutrition labeling.

After Chile implemented its octagonal, front-of-package nutrient warnings, sugar consumption plummeted by more than 10 percent.  The law also caused companies to reformulate their products. Chile also saw a significant 7 percent reduction in products that were high in calories, sugar, sodium, or saturated fat across the country’s packaged food supply, with a particularly high 15 percent reduction in products high in sugar.