Can You Define Healthy? Tell the FDA

To many, a new definition is overdue.

In April of 2015, KIND, a maker of whole grain fruit-and-nut bars, got a surprising notice from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. KIND bars didn’t meet the regulations for “healthy,” the FDA said.  

“The current regulations were created with the best intentions when the available science supported dietary recommendations limiting total fat intake,” Daniel Lubetzky, KIND CEO and founder, said in a statement. “However, current science tells us that the unsaturated fats in nutrient-dense foods like nuts, seeds and certain fish are beneficial to overall health.” 

Later that year, KIND petitioned the FDA to change its regulations. Now it might happen. 

The FDA is seeking public input on defining “healthy,” the agency announced this week, the first step in changing when to apply the term to food labels. 

“The FDA believes that the term ‘healthy’ on a food label is a useful tool for consumers to quickly and easily make better food choices,” FDA spokesperson Lauren Kotwicki told me in an email on Thursday, “but it needs to be updated to be consistent with current public health recommendations.” 

Government guidelines for “healthy” were established more than 20 years ago, when low-fat diets were the standard-bearer of good health. Low-fat sweets and sugary cereals are healthy by FDA standards. Nuts, avocados, and salmon are not. 

“Since the completion of the new Nutrition Facts label,” Kotwicki said, “we are now able to update the definition of this term to be consistent with current nutrition recommendations, which focus on food groups, type of fat, added sugars, and an updated group of nutrients of public health concern.”

The FDA welcomes comments until January 26, 2017. Questions include: 

  • What current dietary recommendations should be reflected in the definition of healthy? 
  • What are the public health benefits of defining the term healthy?
  • What do consumers expect of foods that carry a healthy claim?

“I anticipate that a new definition of ‘healthy’ will be low in added sugars, sodium, and saturated fat,” said Hannah Brilling, Co-op nutrition specialist. “I would love to see food items that are high in mono+polyunsaturated fats to be labeled as healthy.”

Brilling said she hopes new regulations may also eliminate some of the confusion caused by the terms “natural” and “organic.” 

“Remember, ‘natural’ means absolutely nothing from a regulatory standpoint,” Brilling said. “And ‘organic’ is a regulated term, but it has nothing to do with how healthy a food is, just the growing practices used. So organic cookies are no healthier than conventional broccoli from a nutrition standpoint.”

Kotwicki said the FDA will hold public forums to get additional input from consumers. 

“This may take some time,” she said, “but we want to get it right.”

To learn more and comment, go here.

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Ken Davis

Ken Davis is the Co-op's senior copywriter. Email him at