FDA mulls new definition for 'healthy' foods

By Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, Sept. 27, 2016 - The Food and Drug Administration is considering new regulations for foods labeled “healthy” in light of changing scientific thinking about fats and the types of vitamins and minerals that consumers most need. 

As a first step, the agency is soliciting public input on a series of questions about what “healthy” should mean.

“As our understanding about nutrition has evolved, we need to make sure the definition for the ‘healthy' labeling claim stays up to date,” Douglas Balentine, director of FDA's Office of Nutrition and Food Labeling, wrote in a blog post Tuesday. 

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New science is showing that total fat is less important than the types of fat that people consume and that Americans aren't getting enough potassium or vitamin D. 

Among the questions FDA wants answered are what consumers expect of foods that are labeled as healthy and what factors and criteria should be used for the new definition, Balentine wrote. FDA also plans to hold public forums on the issue. “This may take some time, but we want to get it right,” he said. 

In announcing plans to write new regulations for “healthy,” the agency also issued industry guidance saying that it would provide leeway to food companies in its current labeling regulations on content of fats as well as potassium or vitamin D. 

Under the guidance, foods that are not low in total fat should have a fat profile mostly made up of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Sources of those fats include safflower oil, peanut oil and corn oil.

FDA also said it will allow foods to be called healthy if they contain at least 10 percent of the daily recommended consumption, or “daily value,” for potassium or vitamin D.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association welcomed the moves by FDA, including the new industry guidance. 

“Food and beverage manufacturers are committed to providing consumers with the information they need to make informed product choices so we welcome FDA's plans to modernize the definition and clarify the use of the term ‘healthy' on food labels,” the trade group said.  “We are also pleased that the agency's guidance for interim use of this labeling term during the rule making process are aligned with the 2015 Dietary Guideline's prioritization on the type of fats consumed rather than total fats and the updated list of nutrients to encourage.”

FDA's new moves follow a battle with the maker of KIND snacks over its use of the word “healthy.”

FDA sent a warning letter to KIND in March 2015 telling the company that its bars had too much saturated fat to be labeled as healthy. The company took the word off the label but fought back with a petition arguing that the fat comes from nutritious nuts. 

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The agency says it relented only because the words “healthy and tasty” will be clearly presented on the label as the company's corporate philosophy - not as a statement about the nutrient content. 

The company's founder and CEO, Daniel Lubetzky, argued in a press release that the agency's current standards are out of date because that say that foods labeled as healthy can't contain more than three grams of total fat or one gram of saturated fat per serving.

“In examining the regulation, which was established more than two decades ago, KIND also learned that it precludes foods generally considered to be good for you-like nuts, avocados and salmon-from being labeled as healthy,” Lubetzky said. “However, it allows items like fat-free chocolate pudding, some sugary cereals and low-fat toaster pastries to carry the healthy designation.”


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