Is it time to change how we label 'healthy' food?

Story highlights

  • The FDA is considering updating its criteria for foods to have the term "healthy" on their packaging
  • Experts worry that the current requirements are misleading because they do not limit sugar added to products

(CNN)Ever find yourself zipping through the aisles of a grocery store, crunched for time, and grabbing whatever highlights itself as "healthy," "nutritious" or "wholesome"? Your strategy could be flawed.

Experts warn that these labels do not really mean very much and can even be misleading in some cases. But changes could be in motion to make things better.
    Several weeks ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration started discussing plans "to amend its 'healthy' nutrient content claim regulation," a change that would be based upon significant scientific agreement among experts in the field.

    What is 'healthy'?

    The FDA's current criteria, created in 1994, specify that levels of total and saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol within foods need to be below a certain cutoff in order to be marketed as healthy. They must also have at least 10% of the daily requirements for vitamins, fiber and other nutrients.
    "The science [for these criteria] is decades old. Now we have new science to suggest that it is not just low fat, it is the type of fat," said Joan Salge Blake, clinical associate professor in Boston University's nutrition program. "We want less of the saturated fat and more of the heart-healthy unsaturated fat, such as nuts, salmon, avocado and olive oil."
    Based on the current FDA guidelines, none of these foods would qualify as "healthy," because they would exceed the limit for total fat.
    The other flaw is that many cereals, snacks and juice drinks -- often full of added sugar -- still fit the criteria, as long they meet the other requirements.
    "It's great to look now and say you should have added sugars [to the criteria], but there weren't that many products [in the 1990s]," Blake said. At the time, food companies began producing low-fat cookies and baked goods in response to concerns over high-fat diets, and to make their products palatable, they replaced the fat with sugar, she explained.
    The decision to consider updating the FDA's criteria comes in the wake of a warning the agency sent to food company Kind to remove the word "healthy" from the packaging of its snack bars because of the high levels of unsaturated fat they contain. These fats come from the nuts they contain.
    In response, the company removed the term from its packaging but petitioned for the agency "to better align its nutrition labeling regulations with the latest science and current dietary guidance, particularly when it comes to using the word healthy," Kind CEO and founder Daniel Lubetzky said in a statement.
    The petition is supported by nutrition and public health experts at Harvard, Tufts and the Cleveland Clinic, Lubetzky said.
    The FDA affirmed this week that Kind can use the word "healthy" on its wrappers in the context of the company's philosophy, rather than a nutritional claim.

    Implementing change

    The FDA is planning to ask experts and the public for input on what should be considered healthy and will then undergo a public comment period to receive feedback on any changes it make. Any changes to the criteria could therefore be years in the making, but the agency said it does have a timeline regarding these reviews or comment periods.
    "Nothing happens overnight with any of that," said Sara Haas, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "That's why dietary guidelines are updated, too: There's always new information out there, and it makes sense to re-evaluate all that stuff every once in a while."
    The latest version of the U.S. dietary guidelines put a limit on added sugar, advising consumers to limit their intake to 10% of their total calories. The update kept previous recommendations to consume no more than 10% of total calories from fat but expanded on the concept of heart-healthy "good fat" found in oils and some fish.
    "I think it is wise to update [the criteria] to show what research shows," Haas said. "If I was a less knowledgeable person in the food world, that would make me feel better as a parent to know this was more tightly regulated."

    Would we be 'healthier'?

    In reality, if the criteria were revised and foods, such as nuts, started to feature the term "healthy" on their packaging, it would be unlikely to change consumer behavior. "Certain foods they innately know are healthy, like nuts, fruits and veggies," Blake said.
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    Where better label regulations will be useful is in assuring consumers that products based on foods they know are healthy, such as frozen salmon steaks, are good for them as the level of healthy fats within them hold them back from being labeled "healthy." Such labeling could also keep shoppers from reaching for "healthy" cereals and snacks that are, in fact, high in added sugar, added Blake.
    One change that could prove to be more important than redefining what it means to be "healthy" is forcing food companies to list the amount of added sugar in the nutrition facts panel of a product instead of just total sugar, according to Blake.
    "I think that is the biggest thing that would wake up consumers," she said.