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Labelling It Healthy

What does the word “healthy” mean? The word is almost ubiquitous and is on every food, drink, or clothing label. However, there is little consensus on what the word “healthy” actually means. Does “healthy” mean low fat, low sugar, and low salt? While the word will likely still be used to describe a list full of foods and drinks, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is planning to create some clarity and redefine the word. FDA published a Federal Register (FR) notice announcing that the agency will be receiving information and comments on the use of the term “healthy” in the labeling of human food products. Currently, the FDA defines the term “healthy” when used as an implied nutrient content claim in labeling human food products at 21 C.F.R. §101.65(d)(2).

The FR notice comes a year after the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Nutrition (CFSAN) issued a Warning Letter to KIND LLC, a producer of ‘Kind’ bars and other fruit and nut snacks, because the labels and labeling of KIND’s nutrition bars bore a variety of nutrient content claims, including “healthy,” but the products did not meet the requirements to make such claims.  KIND LLC subsequently sent a citizen petition to the FDA Commissioner requesting that the FDA update the FDA’s existing requirements related to food labeling to become consistent with current federal dietary guidance as set forth in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and with the latest scientific evidence discussed in the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (2015 DGAC Report).

As stated in KIND LLC’s letter to the FDA, the FDA’s current regulatory approach for food labelling is inconsistent with the DGAC recommendations. With obesity rates in the United States continually increasing at alarming rates, educating consumers about how to carry out a “healthful” diet is essential to public health. KIND LLC requested in the letter that the FDA take a holistic approach when reviewing the healthfulness of foods, instead of identifying and demonizing one food ingredient or nutrient.

The health label on packaging is an easy, but possibly misleading, tool that food companies can use to help educate consumers and give them easily accessible information about the food that they choose. A food may be low in salt, sugar and/or fat, but it doesn’t mean that it has the nutrients to create a healthful diet, which is why it is so important for the FDA to properly address this issue. It is likely that there will be an increase in regulation or scrutiny around food labels in order to create a more transparent food system, as well as attempt to stifle the upward trend of obesity.

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