Labeling Foods “Healthy”

Food labels can tell us many things in a straightforward manner — for example, how much sugar, fiber, or total carbohydrate an item contains. In addition to the Nutrition Facts panel that most foods have on the side or back of their packaging, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines certain words and phrases that can be printed on the front of food labels. Terms that the FDA defines for use on labels include “low fat,” “good source of fiber,” “lean,” “antioxidant,” and “contains 100 calories,” among many others.

But some terms that the FDA defines are much more open to controversy than others. While experts might disagree on the amount of fat a food should contain to be considered “low in fat,” there’s no disputing what fat is or how much of it a food contains. A term like “healthy,” on the other hand, is open to endless debate and interpretation (as we noted in a post earlier this year here at Diabetes Flashpoints.)


As noted in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, the FDA has announced that it’s revisiting its definition of “healthy” for the first time since the word was defined (for labeling purposes) in 1994. Back then, the top concern of most health professionals was the fat content of foods, and little attention was given to the negative health effects of sugar and other refined carbohydrates. This means that under the original — and still current — definition of “healthy,” a food like Frosted Flakes would qualify because it’s low in fat, sodium, and cholesterol, and contains (added) nutrients like calcium and vitamin D.

Completely unrefined foods like almonds and avocados, on the other hand, don’t qualify for the “healthy” label because they contain too much fat — despite the fact that many nutrition experts currently consider them among the healthiest foods available. To help right what is now widely considered an obvious wrong, the FDA has announced that until its new “healthy” definition is in place, it will give food manufacturers some wiggle room in making “healthy” claims if the food in question still meets most of the agency’s criteria — for example, if it contains more saturated fat than current guidelines allow, but still is low in overall fat and contains essential nutrients.

What factors do you think the FDA should prioritize in its new definition of “healthy” — low in calories? Low in refined carbohydrates or sugar? High in “healthy” fats, or fiber? Do you think you’d be more likely to buy a food if its label proclaimed that it was “healthy”? Is the definition of “healthy” different enough for every person that the FDA shouldn’t allow it to be used at all, or are there enough common themes in what makes a healthy food? Leave a comment below!