FDA Plans to Define Healthy This Summer

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) plans to release a new definition of the word “healthy” this coming summer, according to a statement by outgoing commissioner Scott Gottlieb at an event at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington D.C. 

The current FDA definition restricts usage of the term “healthy” based on the levels of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and certain other nutrients, based on the category that the food falls under. This definition was established in 1993 and has only recently been revisited, despite changes to separate dietary guidance.

This means that foods such as salmon, nuts, bottled water, and even some gluten-free pastas don’t qualify to call themselves healthy, under the current definition. 

After years of interest from food companies and consumers concerned with the current, outdated definition, the FDA requested public input in September 2016 on the term as a claim for food labeling and marketing. The agency received so many submissions that the comment period was extended, finally closing with a total of over 1100 public comments, ranging from more leniency to tighter restrictions on GMOs.

Along with this request, the FDA issued some clarifying guidance to serve while analyzing public comments and coming to a consensus on a new definition. Under this clarification, the total fat restriction was lightened provided that most of the fat a food contained be mono or polyunsaturated fat, if the amounts of each are declared on the label.

The agency’s interest in changing the official definition came in response to a citizen petition sent to the FDA by Kind after the company was warned that its snack bars contained too much fat to use the term. Kind requested that the term “healthy” could be applied to foods if their fat content came from “fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, and seafood.” 

Gottlieb stated that the exact definition of the term was still under debate within the FDA, but the agency should issue the guidance this summer. According to an aide, agency staff is still going through the comments they received on the definition.

With the continued growth of healthy trends, food companies are watching the new guidelines closely. Adding to the interest, the FDA is considering introducing a new icon to signal to consumers that the agency considers the food healthy.

According to Gottlieb, “One of the things we’re contemplating inside the agency right now is the icon itself. There’s a sort of rigorous debate going on about whether or not we include the FDA logo in the … healthy logo.”

Although it’s uncertain exactly what changes will come to the definition, food companies and consumers alike wait eagerly to hear the final decision.