According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), six out of 10 Americans suffer from chronic lifestyle-related diseases that often stem from obesity and poor diet. These illnesses are the nation’s leading drivers of death and disability, as well as the central cause behind the $4.1 trillion in annual health-care costs paid by Americans. Obesity rates climbed during the pandemic, especially among children, with studies showing that 45.7 percent of 5- to 11-year-olds are now considered overweight. Given the stakes of this massive public health problem, advocacy groups have long called for the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to place stricter requirements on food labels in order to push consumers towards healthier options.
The FDA has responded to this outcry with a proposed set of rules that could redefine the word “healthy” both for companies and consumers. Announced at the end of last month, the new standards will allow manufacturers to label products “healthy” as long as they contain “a meaningful amount of food from at least one of the food groups” recommended by the agency’s dietary guidelines. This includes items containing fruit, vegetables, or dairy, so long as those products also “adhere to specific limits for certain nutrients, such as saturated fat, sodium and added sugars.” For example, a cereal brand could not use the “healthy” label simply for containing whole grains: it also needs to be low in sugar and saturated fat to qualify.
Once these rules are finalized, federal officials say the new system will “quickly and easily communicate nutrition information” through initiatives like “star ratings or traffic light schemes to promote equitable access to nutrition information and healthier choices.” The FDA claims the changes now place the agency in line with current nutrition science, the recently updated Nutrition Facts label, and the FDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Still, the idea of what constitutes a “healthy” food is difficult to determine, which has some people in the food industry worried. “The details are critical because the final rule goes well beyond a simple definition by creating a de facto nutrition profile regulatory scheme that will dictate how food can be made for decades to come,” said Sean McBride, a former executive with the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
- Why did the FDA update its guidelines regulating how food companies use terms like “healthy” on their packaging?
- Do you think the FDA’s proposed guidelines will succeed in convincing consumers to choose healthier options? Why or why not?