The Food and Drug Administration is reworking its 28-year-old definition of “healthy” foods to allow fish, nuts and many other items to qualify for the label if they provide meaningful amounts of the products people are supposed to eat under federal dietary guidelines.

Under a proposed rule announced Wednesday, a food labeled as “healthy” would have to contain a minimum amount of food from at least one of the groups or subgroups, including fruits, vegetables, nuts and lean meats, recommended for consumption under the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The qualifying foods could not contain excessive amounts of saturated fat, sodium and added sugars.

Some foods, such as raw, whole fruits and vegetables, and water would automatically qualify for the revised definition, FDA says.

For other products, there would be varying content requirements based on the type of item and food group. For example, a main dish would be required to have one "food group equivalent," such as a half-cup of a fruit or vegetable, from at least two food groups. 

A breakfast cereal labeled as "healthy" would need to contain 3/4-ounce of whole grains and no more than one gram of saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium and 2.5 grams of added sugars, FDA said. 

The agency also says it is in the process of developing a symbol that food companies can use on products that comply with the proposed regulations.

Under the current definition, implemented in 1994, foods labeled as “healthy” must contain certain amounts of individual nutrients as well as not exceed limits on total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.

The agency says that definition no longer fits with nutrition science or the latest dietary guidelines and the existing regulations exclude healthful foods such as salmon. Salmon can’t be labeled as healthy because of the existing restrictions on fats.

About 5% of foods now in the marketplace qualify as “healthy” under the existing regulations.

In the 105-page proposed rule, FDA says the new definition "is appropriately flexible to allow for industry innovation, thereby increasing the availability of foods in the marketplace that will help consumers meet dietary recommendations.”

FDA announced the proposed new definition was released in conjunction with the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, which was focused on a national strategy for eliminating hunger and reducing diet-related diseases.

The agency also is beginning work on a front-of-package labeling requirement, a key recommendation in the strategy.

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FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said that redefining the “healthy” labeling claim “is an important step toward accomplishing a number of nutrition-related priorities, which include empowering consumers with information to choose healthier diets and establishing healthy eating habits early. It can also result in a healthier food supply.” 

In the proposed rule, the agency says it was not setting minimum nutrient levels for “healthy” foods because doing so encouraged companies to add nutrients to foods such as white bread that were otherwise “not contributing to a meaningful amount of a food group.”

The restrictions on saturated fats would vary according to the recommended daily limit, or Daily Value, for various types of food, under FDA’s proposal. For example, the limit would be 5% of the Daily Value for fruit, vegetable and grain products, 10% for dairy products, game meats, seafood and eggs, and 20% for total fat for oils and oil-based spreads and dressings.

FDA says it didn’t propose limits on total fats because dietary guidelines now focus on replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats. “Current nutrition science supports a view that the type of fat is more relevant than overall total fat intake in risk of chronic diseases,” the proposed rule says.

Roberta Wagner, vice president of regulatory and technical affairs for the Consumer Brands Association, says a new definition of "healthy" will "succeed only if it is clear and consistent for manufacturers and understood by consumers. The definition is a first step that must be tested over time to ensure its intent of providing information to help inform healthy choices is being met.”

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