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Do You Know What Healthy Food Is?

December 15, 2016

Quick, answer this question: what’s the difference between “healthy,” “low fat” and “good source of” on a nutrition label?

If you’re scratching your head trying to come up with a response, you’re not alone. It turns out most Americans need clarity on these categories, too.

It’s why the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recently launched an effort to define what “healthy” actually means.

The agency said in a statement that “redefining ‘healthy’ is part of an overall plan to provide consumers with information and tools to enable them to easily and quickly make food choices consistent with public health recommendations and to encourage the development of healthier foods by the industry.”

This is a huge public health challenge, but one the agency is committed to tackling.

Defining “Healthy”

The FDA has made an ongoing effort to help Americans make healthier food choices. This year it changed the labels on packaged goods to reflect how the public actually eats and to highlight added sugar in these products. The font size on the labeling also is larger and there’s additional nutrient information, such as the amount of Vitamin D, potassium and calcium. The FDA also offers guidance on its site on how to correctly read and use the nutritional label on packaged goods, with advice on which nutrients to limit and of which you need more.

Douglas Balentine, director of the FDA's Office of Nutrition and Food Labeling, said that because most consumers make purchase decisions quickly — usually within three to five seconds — it’s important they can easily access the right information to make healthy food choices.

“The marketplace is teeming with rows and rows of foods – some new and some not; some healthier than others,” Balentine said in a blog post on the FDA’s site. Even for the well informed, choosing what to buy is challenging, especially if you want to choose a healthy diet for you and your families.”

The FDA said since the public’s understanding of nutrition has changed, including a focus on the type of fat consumed and amount of added sugars, it’s critical to make sure the definition of “healthy” on food labels remains in line with these changes.

 At this time, the FDA offers a guidance document for manufacturers with a definition of the “healthy” claim used on food labels.  There are 2 criteria. 

  1. The food is not low in total fat, but has a fat profile makeup of predominately mono and polyunsaturated fat. 
  2. The food contains at least 10% of the Daily Value (DV) of potassium or Vitamin D. 

“By updating the definition, we hope more companies will use the “healthy” claim as the basis for new product innovation and reformulation, providing consumers with a greater variety of “healthy” choices in the marketplace,” Balentine said.

As part of this process, the FDA is asking the public for input on what healthy should mean from a nutrition standpoint, what their current interpretation of “healthy” is on food labels and how this may affect their purchasing decisions. The agency also hopes the effort will encourage food manufacturers to improve the nutritional quality of their products. While the FDA works to redefine “healthy” on food labels, manufacturers can still use this term on their products as long as they meet current regulatory requirements. 

While I applaud the FDA’s efforts, eating packaged goods typically involves eating processed foods, which don’t pack nearly the same nutritional punch as food that comes from the Earth. The reality is that the American diet is filled with processed foods, added sugar, salt and saturated fat, so making changes to how we define and label proper nutrition is necessary. However, a tried-and-true approach to healthier eating is a diet filled with lean meats, fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds which will help consumers avoid the issue of food labels in the first place.

Eating healthy and avoiding processed foods helps you lose weight, have better skin and prolonged health. Also, "healthy" on a food nutrition label doesn’t always mean these foods are actually healthy — they just may be comparatively healthy to the next boxed item on the shelf.

That’s not a great yardstick for proper nutrition, so a good rule of thumb is stick to foods that maintain their quality and freshness for about a week in your refrigerator — and not those with expiration dates in the next decade. If it’s a living, breathing organism with simple ingredients you can pronounce, chances are it’s a lot better for you than anything that comes in a cardboard box.

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