FDA officials, food and beverage companies, nutrition scientists and consumer advocates all agree that the agency’s standards for applying the “healthy” label aren’t up to snuff, given that foods like almonds, salmon and avocado don’t make the cut, while chocolate pudding and Pop-Tarts can. But crafting a new definition is a complicated challenge, as was evident during FDA’s first public meeting on the issue on Thursday in Rockville, Md. The agency must answer fundamental questions before it can start the rulemaking process, such as what it wants the new standard to accomplish.
Is the goal to shift Americans’ diets toward better eating patterns? Reduce consumption of specific nutrients or foods that are deemed harmful? Encourage manufacturers to reformulate their foods? Or all of the above?
Many attendees urged FDA to be flexible in its definition because nutrition science and consumer attitudes toward healthy eating are constantly changing. But some broad ideas about the way forward were offered – namely, that the new definition of “healthy” needs to consider food groups (fruit, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, dairy and lean meat) as well as nutrients (sugar, salt, fats, protein). Right now, the regulatory definition focuses on specific nutrients, ultimately leading to grocery store aisles being packed with foods low in fat but high in carbohydrates.
Several approaches were laid out. Kristin Reimers, director of nutrition at ConAgra Foods, outlined a tiered approach based on food groups to encourage: The more a product contained those items, like fruits and vegetables, the more flexibility it would receive for the amount of nutrients to limit, like salt and saturated fat, it could include. The Center for Science in the Public Interest put forward seven criteria for defining “healthy,” ranging from excluding foods that contain more than a few grams of added sugar and ensuring sodium limits align with the FDA’s voluntary reduction targets issued last year for food companies.
KIND Snacks (the company that was involved in getting this whole shebang started in the first place, after FDA sent it a warning letter about the “healthy” claim on their nut bars) presented four ideas, such as ensuring that processed foods have a “meaningful amount” of ingredients that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans considers part of a healthy eating pattern.
This article from POLITICO’s Morning Agriculture, by Catherine Boudreau, with help from Jason Huffman, Megan Cassella, Brent Griffiths, Eric Wolff and Helena Bottemiller Evich.