In the 1990s, food had to be low in fat in order to be considered healthy. Those were the days of Snack-Wells cookies and fat-free salad dressings. How times have changed. Now health professionals consider many higher-fat foods such as almonds, avocado, eggs, and salmon to be healthy. Conversely, some low-fat but artificial, processed foods are no longer deemed healthy.

Food labeling rules created by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration govern the claims that food manufacturers can make about their products – all in an effort to prevent unscrupulous marketers from misleading the public. However, perpetually changing science about what foods are good for us has left those regulations out of date.

Currently, the rules found at 21 CFR § 101.65(d)(2) state that in order to be labeled “healthy”, most types of foods must contain the following:

  • 3 grams or less of fat;
  • 1 gram or less of saturated fat;
  • 60 mg or less of cholesterol;
  • At least 10% of the Reference Daily Intake or the Daily Reference Value per serving customarily consumed of one or more of the following: vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein, or fiber; and
  • 480 mg or less of sodium per serving.

These requirements have had some unusual consequences, including a kerfuffle after the FDA issued a 2015 warning letter to the maker of KIND brand nut bars, which were marketed as being healthy. The bars are primarily excluded from the existing definition of healthy because of fat levels from nut ingredients. Now, in part due to a petition from KIND, the FDA announced it is planning to modify its standards to conform to current nutritional advice. To do so, the FDA is seeking input from the public. It is specifically requesting responses to questions including:

  • What types of food should be allowed to bear the term “healthy”? Should all food categories be subject to the same criteria?
  • What nutrient criteria should be considered for the definition of the term “healthy”?
  • What are the public health benefits, if any, of defining the term “healthy” or other similar terms in food labeling?
  • Would a change in the term “healthy” cause a shift in consumer behavior in terms of dietary choices?

To see FDA’s full request for information and list of questions, including instructions on how to submit your own comment, see the public notice here. Comments are due by January 26, 2017.