Redefining Healthy

When I first started my journey to become a registered dietitian, I had no idea I was getting into a field that would change and evolve as much as it does. Sure, my biochemistry and human metabolism notes are probably still relevant, but it seems like every other recommendation and guideline has been turned upside down.

Let’s take, for example, the low-fat craze of the 90’s. Remember those popular 100-calorie packs of refined grains advertising their low-fat contents (and the obvious fact that they only had 100 calories)? It doesn’t take long to start making a list of all the foods that started popping up on the shelves (and possibly in your home) that boasted being “low-fat,” “reduced-fat,” or even “fat-free.” You name it, it was probably out there: Fat-free salad dressings, cheese, frozen yogurt, candy. But does that make these foods “healthy?” According to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) definition of the food claim “healthy,” it does. Or at least did.

Twenty years ago, fat had become a villain and consumers wanted nothing to do with it. While the dietary guidelines emphasized saturated fat as the main culprit, most consumers assumed if one fat was bad, all fats were bad and should be avoided. Therefore, fat was replaced with carbohydrates. Instead of focusing on whole grains, fruits, and vegetables (which are all good carb options!), the public deemed refined grains as good replacements, too.

Pretzels were good, but nuts were considered bad. Today this almost sounds absurd, but 20 year ago it was a different story. In order to use the claim “healthy” on the front of a package, the food had to meet the FDA’s criteria of being low in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium with at least 10% of the daily value of one or more of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein, or fiber.

Up until September of last year, that was still the definition of the “healthy” food claim. The foods we now would consider “healthy,” like nuts and avocados, couldn’t be marketed as such due to their high fat content (albeit “healthy” fat). Yet, other foods were still able to use the claim that hardly seemed appropriate with the evolving evidence and new dietary guidelines in place.

With the possible change of the Nutrition Facts Label and a push back from the popular Kind bars who used the phrase “healthy and tasty” for one of their nut-based granola bars, the FDA is now declaring it’s time to redefine what “healthy” means.

Rather than focusing on the amount of fat, a new guidance has been released – until a permanent change in the definition can be made – that focuses on the type of fat in the product. Manufacturers may now use “healthy” on labels if the item meets any of the following criteria in addition to the other criteria for the claim: 1) it is not low in total fat, but has a fat profile made up of mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats or 2) contains at least 10% of the daily value of potassium or vitamin D.

In the meantime, the FDA is asking for public input until April 26th on what “healthy” should mean and how consumers understand the “healthy” food label claim before they make a definite change to the claim. For some, this may mean looking past the nutrients. Perhaps it means looking at what the food doesn’t contain instead, such as artificial ingredients or sugar.

Whatever is decided, it may take years until a new definition of the “healthy” claim is released. In the meantime, it’s important not to judge a food on its label alone. What may be “healthy” for one person, may not be for another person depending on his dietary needs. Rather than focusing on the marketing claims or captions on the front of the package, look at the ingredient list and Nutrition Facts Label to make an informed decision for yourself on whether that item can fit into a balanced, healthy diet that’s right for you and your family.

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