(CNN) — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is proposing changes to the nutritional standards that foods must meet before they can carry the “healthy” label on their packaging.
The proposal comes as the White House held its conference on hunger, nutrition and health and released a new national strategy to end hunger, improve nutrition and improve physical activity.
About 5% of food is labeled as healthy, which is a regulated claim. Foods making this claim have restrictions on individual nutrients such as fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, and must contain minimum levels of vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, protein and fiber.
The FDA says nutrition and nutritional science has changed since the claim was first defined in 1994, rendering the term obsolete.
For example, certain cereals with high amounts of added sugar still meet the definition of “healthy,” but salmon, which is rich in beneficial polyunsaturated fats, does not.
The proposed criteria change the definition of healthy. Instead of just counting individual nutrients, health claims would also take into account the variety of nutrients present in food and the nutrient density.
In order to be labeled with the claim “healthy”, products would have to:
- Contain a specific, sensible amount of food from at least one of the food groups or subgroups recommended in the dietary guidelines – such as fruits, vegetables or dairy products.
- Maintain certain limits on certain nutrients, such as saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. The limit is based on one percent of the daily value for the nutrient and varies by food and food group. For example, the limit for sodium is 10% of the DV.
For example, a granola would have to contain three-quarters of an ounce of whole grains and no more than 1 gram of saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium, and 2.5 grams of added sugars, the FDA says.
Foods high in fats, such as certain oils, nuts and seeds, would also be newly eligible for the health claim, the FDA says.
“Nutrition is the key to improving the health of our country,” said Xavier Becerra, US Secretary of Health and Human Services, in a press release. “Healthy eating can reduce our risk of chronic disease. But too many people may not know what constitutes healthy foods. FDA’s move will help educate more Americans to improve health outcomes, address health inequalities, and save lives.”
Proposal would have limited effect, critics say
Diet advocates say the proposed rule has some strengths but doesn’t go nearly far enough to encourage better food choices.
“The potential impact as we see it is fairly limited,” said Eva Greenthal, senior science policy associate at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Greenthal says the number of food products that currently carry the voluntary claim “healthy” is tiny and that tightening standards could see that percentage shrink even further.
She points out that people really struggle to understand when a food isn’t nutritious. The “healthy” assertion doesn’t help.
Instead, the Center for Science in the Public Interest wants labels on the front of food packages, like those used in Mexico and the UK, that warn consumers if food is high in salt, sugar or saturated fat.
These warnings sometimes look like traffic lights or black stop signs.
“There is a large body of experimental research that tends to favor nutrient alerts because they have a significant impact on consumer choices and improve the overall health of the foods selected when grocery shopping,” Greenthal said.
Greenthal says her group will submit comments on the proposed rule to voice their concerns.