The FDA proposed a new definition for the term “healthy,” dividing big food makers and nutritionists

Last September, the FDA proposed an updated definition of the food label to incorporate new research on nutrition

By Joy Saha

Staff Writer

Published March 5, 2023 4:30PM (EST)

Woman takes fresh organic vegetables (Getty Images/Maria Korneeva)
Woman takes fresh organic vegetables (Getty Images/Maria Korneeva)

Amid the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) proposal to update the definition of the nutrition claim "healthy," several major food companies — including the nation's biggest cereal makers, granola brands and packaged food manufacturers — are pushing back.

On September 28, 2022, the FDA announced their plan to change the label's existing definition, which was established in 1994 and "has limits for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium…" Under the current dietary guidelines, foods "must provide 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 guidelines also prioritize "the importance of healthy dietary patterns" and the kinds of fats in the diet instead of "the total amount of fat consumed, and the amount of sodium and added sugars in the diet."

The new definition will take into consideration current nutrition science, federal dietary guidance from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 and the updated nutrition facts label. It specifically emphasizes "nutrient-dense foods" that are from at least one of the food groups or subgroups (fruit, vegetables, grains, dairy and protein foods) recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Under the proposed definition, raw fruits and vegetables would automatically be deemed "healthy" because of their nutritional benefits and "positive contribution to an overall healthy diet." But high-sugar, low-fat products — which are currently considered "healthy" — would no longer be able to carry that label. 

That's what many major food companies are continuing to take issue with. Prominent cereal, pasta, yogurt and processed foods companies claim the strict nutritional standards would wrongly categorize many popular foods as "bad," even though they provide some micronutrients. Several companies also slammed the definition as "unconstitutional," asserting it violates companies' First Amendment rights.

In a February 16 comment on the federal agency's proposal, Kellogg's wrote that the new definition "automatically disqualifies entire categories of nutrient dense foods." Similarly, KIND, the New York City-based snack food company, slammed the FDA's proposed regulations on added sugars, saying they "created a barrier for fruit, vegetable, and protein food innovation" and would encourage companies to use artificial sweeteners.

"Criteria for use of 'healthy' should not be so restrictive that they allow only a very limited number of foods to qualify, because this could lead consumers to conclude that other nutrient dense food choices are 'unhealthy,'" the company added.

General Mills — the major food processing company behind brands like Annie's, Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Yoplait, Chex, Cheerios, Choco Puffs, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Raisin Nut Bran and more — complained about the legal consequences of the FDA's "overly restrictive" rule:

"[T]he Proposed Rule precludes many objectively healthy products, including those promoted by the Dietary Guidelines, from engaging in truthful, non misleading commercial expression — and these overly restrictive boundaries for 'healthy' violate the First Amendment," General Mills wrote, per CBS News.

Following suit was the Consumer Brands Association, which wrote that "consumers have a First Amendment right to receive truthful information about products and manufacturers have a First Amendment right to provide it to them." The association — whose membership list includes Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and the Campbell Soup Company — also estimated that 95% of foods currently on the market would not qualify for a "healthy" label under the FDA's new requirements, according to CBS News.

Furthermore, some companies said the proposed limits would actually make foods less enjoyable, thus decreasing overall sales. Others said the limits would make foods less feasible for consumers, who are often drawn to affordable, easy-to-prepare and resourceful meals.

On the flip side, many nutritionists and food experts have supported the FDA's new initiatives, saying they would improve consumer health and wellness. According to data from the Dietary Guidelines for America, more than 80% of people in the U.S. aren't eating enough vegetables, fruit and dairy. More people are also consuming too much added sugars, saturated fat and sodium, which increases the risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes — the leading causes of death in the United States. 

"This new definition may disqualify foods that are nutrient-dense. But it will also disqualify foods that provide too many added sugars, sodium, and/or certain fats," explained Lauren Manaker, a registered dietitian-nutritionist, certified lactation education-counselor and author. "So, certain items, like granola bars or cereals or even some yogurts, may provide many micronutrients, but they also provide high amounts of added sugars, which when consumed in large quantities, can be linked to unsavory health outcomes."

She continued, "This new labeling doesn't mean that a food that isn't labeled as 'healthy' should be avoided. Depending on a person's overall diet, a sugary yogurt or granola bar may fit in nicely, assuming the rest of their diet is relatively lower in added sugars."

Although Manaker said she likes some aspects of the FDA's changes, she hopes the new definition "doesn't create more fear around eating certain foods that certainly can be a part of a balanced and nutritious diet."

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"While there are some aspects that may help people navigate their food choices, the overall concept of labeling foods as 'healthy' or not and making it so black and white may leave some people confused, especially since we eat in dietary patterns and we don't live off of one individual food item," Manaker added.

Reiterating her claim is Celine Beitchman​, the director of nutrition at the Institute of Culinary Education, who said the term "healthy" is just one of the many nutritional buzzwords that are featured on packages:

"They [The FDA] are doing something that I think makes sense on some level. But I don't know if that will translate to meaningful outcomes for the average person, since the food environment is completely saturated with so many other confusing symbols and terminology around health," Beitchman​ said. "You know, we're in an era where there's not much respect for expertise. And so, even that kind of level of labeling doesn't necessarily get embraced by people."

In addition to the proposed definition, the FDA is also determining a symbol that will appear on the front of food packages to represent the nutrition claim "healthy." The claim coupled with the symbol would "act as a quick signal to empower" consumers and help them identify nutritious foods faster. 

For now, consumers can incorporate more vegetables, fruits and whole grains into their diet to boost their overall well-being. Dr. Susan Mayne, director of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, also recommended consuming lower-fat dairy, protein foods and healthy oils — like olive and canola. 

"Try to eat and drink fewer foods and beverages high in saturated fat, sodium, or added sugars," she added.

The FDA is currently reviewing feedback and public comments on the proposed rules. At this time, it's uncertain when a final decision will be made.

By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.


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