Claire Bugos is a New York City-based health and science reporter and writer.
Nick Blackmer is a librarian, fact-checker, and researcher with more than 20 years’ experience in consumer-oriented health and wellness content.
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The definition of “healthy” food is getting upgraded to reflect current nutrition science.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a proposal last week that would change the requirements for manufacturers who want to claim that their food or beverage product is “healthy.”
The old definition, which was set in 1994, sets strict limits on the amount of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium that a food or drink should include. It also required products to contribute at least 10% of an individual’s daily value of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein, or dietary fiber.
Currently, only about 5% of all packaged foods can be labeled as “healthy,” and more than 80% of people in the U.S. don’t eat enough fruits, vegetables, and dairy, according to the FDA.
Now, regulators want to put greater emphasis on promoting a well-rounded diet.
Under the FDA’s proposal, manufacturers can claim a food or drink product is “healthy” so long as it contains a meaningful amount of food from at least one of the food groups or subgroups outlined in the Dietary Guidelines. These include vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, and protein foods.
“People eat food, not nutrients,” Shelley Maniscalco, MPH, RDN, a nutrition scientist and CEO of Nutrition on Demand told Verywell in an email. “It’s a simpler message that is more relatable to how individuals and families think about food and beverage choices and, I believe, more practical to guide healthier decisions long-term.”
When we talk about the right nutrition messaging around fat, it’s not just about quantity. It’s like your friends in life—it’s not about how many you have, but the quality of those friends. Will they be there for you when you need them?
Certain nutrients that were deemed unhealthful in the 1990s are now considered by nutrition scientists to be an important part of a balanced diet.
Rather than focusing on the importance of individual nutrients, the new guidelines emphasize the importance of promoting a better “dietary pattern,” or a more well-rounded diet overall.
This means certain foods that were considered to be harmful to health are now seen as an important part of a balanced diet. For instance, nutrition scientists now understand the quality of fats to be as important to health, if not more important, than the amount of fat a person consumes. Under the new rule, certain high-fat foods can now be considered healthy. These include salmon, certain nuts and seeds, avocado, and olive oil.
“We’ve evolved so that now, when we talk about the right nutrition messaging around fat, it’s not just about quantity. It’s like your friends in life—it’s not about how many you have, but the quality of those friends. Will they be there for you when you need them?” Hope Barkoukis, PhD, RDN, LD, FAND, chair of the department of nutrition at the Case Western Reserve University school of medicine, told Verywell. “We’ve made that huge transition—it’s not a focus exclusively on total fat, but rather the quality.”

Additionally, some foods that were previously considered healthy due to their inclusion of certain key nutrients, may not meet the new requirements.

This is because the proposed rule sets limits for the amount of sugar, saturated fat, and sodium a food or beverage can include. The limit for sodium, for instance, will be set at 10% of the daily value per serving, or 230 milligrams per serving.
For example, many cereals contain dietary fiber and are supplemented with nutrients like vitamin D, but they may also be high in added sugars. Now, to count as healthy, a serving of cereal must have a minimum amount of whole grains, and not exceed a limit of saturated fat, sodium, or added sugar.
“As a nation, we’re so competitive and we’re focused on numbers. We’ve got to move away from that to start thinking about food groups. That’s what this new definition of healthy is doing,” Barkoukis said.

The FDA is also studying whether it’s helpful to include a special symbol on the front of a package of food that is deemed to be healthy. The agency said doing so might be particularly useful for consumers to identify foods that can be part of a healthy diet.

At last week’s national nutrition conference, FDA Director for Food Nutrition and Safety Susan Maine said the agency was considering plans to move the nutrition label to the front of food packaging.

The idea is that providing consumers more information about what’s in their food and making that information easy to see when skimming a packed grocery store aisle may promote better dietary decision making.
“What we know is that when we put something on a label it does two things: the first is that it empowers consumers with information. Think about when we put added sugars on the nutrition label in the most recent update—that is a piece of information that none of us had access to, even a few years ago,” Maine said.
Putting certain nutrients on a food label can also motivate manufacturers to improve the nutritional value of their products. In 2006, the FDA began requiring manufacturers to list trans fats on their nutrition labels. As a result, the use of trans fat in packaged food decreased by about 80%, Maine said.

Eating a healthy diet has long been known to reduce the risk of chronic disease. Half of all people in the U.S. have one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
These chronic diseases disproportionately affect certain racial and ethnic groups, as well as poor Americans.
It’s important, Barkoukis said, that all people can eat foods that are culturally important to them while practicing a healthy dietary pattern. In many other parts of the world, there is not an “over-exaggeration” of the importance of a few key nutrients, as there is in the U.S, she said. Encouraging better overall eating habits may allow for more diverse diets to be considered healthy.
“No matter what your background is, if you’re here in the United States, your native foods, your typical cultural choices can easily fit within these parameters,” Barkoukis said.
The FDA’s update is part of a broader push from the federal government to decrease health disparities and the prevalence of chronic diseases. As part of the nutrition summit, President Joe Biden announced plans to improve access to natural spaces, boost physical education in schools, expand programs to treat food as medicine, and invest in climate and public health.
Nutrition scientists largely agree that eating a diet loaded with fruits and vegetables, minimizing sugar and salt intake, and focusing on whole foods rather than ultra-processed ones can lead to better health outcomes. You can refer to the Dietary Guidelines, which are updated every five years, for more information about building a balanced diet.
Food and Drug Administration, Department of Health and Human Services. Food labeling: nutrient content claims; definition of term “healthy. Federal Register. 2022. 87 FR 59168;59168-59202.
Food and Drug Administration. FDA issues additional procedural notice on consumer research on “healthy” symbol.
Food and Drug Administration. Small entity compliance guide: trans fatty acids in nutrition labeling, nutrient content claims, and health claims.
By Claire Bugos
Claire Bugos is a health and science reporter and writer and a 2020 National Association of Science Writers travel fellow. 

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