What Does "Healthy" Even Mean? The Government Wants Answers

What should a food be if it wants to declare itself "healthy?" The FDA is seeking public comments.

Federal food regulators want to define what "healthy" food really means, according to a government document filed with the federal register. They'll begin taking public comment this week.

The word is everywhere in food labels and ads. But what does it even mean?

"The marketplace is teeming with rows and rows of foods – some new and some not; some healthier than others. 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" wrote Douglas Balentine, director of the FDA's nutrition and food labeling office, in a blog post. "That’s why we’re looking at how we define the claim 'healthy.'"

The announcement comes after the FDA faced mounting pressure from consumers and companies to determine how "healthy" foods should be defined.

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Up until now, the FDA has allowed companies to use the term "healthy" on labels as long as its nutrient content contributes to creating a healthy diet and the "healthy" label includes nutrition information. For example, a label may show “healthy, contains 3 grams of fat."

But health science for various nutrients have evolved since the FDA last set its rules in the 1990s — back when dietary recommendations shunned fats and took an easy line on carbs.

Nutrition experts, and companies including KIND Snacks — which has been at the center of controversy over the "healthy" claims on its bars — have pushed the agency to update its definition to include healthy fats that may be in certain fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, and seafood.

"We’re encouraged by the speed of progress within the FDA and see this as a notable milestone in our country’s journey to redefine healthy," said KIND Snacks CEO Daniel Lubetzky to BuzzFeed News. "The FDA has posed a number of important questions for comment, and in our continued efforts to advocate for public health, we’re actively convening experts to help provide answers grounded in current nutrition science."

The definition, however, won't change overnight. Food manufacturers can continue to use the “healthy” label on foods that meet the current regulatory definition while the agency considers public comment.

The FDA has set up a page for anyone wanting to submit their comments on the topic.

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