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A Fresh Take on What "Healthy" Means on Food Packages

The FDA wants to update the definition of the nutrient content claim “healthy” and is studying ways to help you spot foods that qualify to make the claim.


With so many food options out there, it is helpful to have information on food packages that can empower you to identify healthier choices.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is proposing to update its definition of “healthy.” That includes the nutritional criteria a product must meet to put the claim “healthy” on the package. The FDA also is conducting research on a symbol to represent the claim “healthy.” The claim, along with a potential symbol on the front of a package, would act as a quick signal to empower you with information to identify foods that will help you build healthy dietary patterns.

More than 80% of people in the U.S. aren’t eating enough vegetables, fruit and dairy, according to the Dietary Guidelines for America, 2020-2025. And most people consume too much added sugars, saturated fat and sodium. That’s concerning because unhealthy dietary patterns can increase the risk of some of the most common chronic diseases.

You don’t have to wait for a new definition of the “healthy” claim or a symbol to be in place to be more mindful about your food choices. “You can start now,” says Susan Mayne, Ph.D., director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

“To make healthier food choices for yourself and your family, aim to eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lower-fat dairy, protein foods and healthy oils—like olive and canola,” Dr. Mayne says. “Try to eat and drink fewer foods and beverages high in saturated fat, sodium, or added sugars.” 

Dr. Mayne adds you also can check the Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods to get information on specific nutrients and compare food products. By looking at the Percent Daily Value, abbreviated as the %DV, of the different nutrients you can choose foods that contain more of the nutrients you want to get more of and less of nutrients you may want to limit.

Updating the Definition of “Healthy” on Food Packaging

The current definition of “healthy” as a nutrient content claim on food packaging was established in 1994. It was based on the nutrition science and federal dietary guidelines at the time. The definition was focused on individual nutrients — such as saturated fat, total fat, cholesterol, and sodium, along with certain vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein — with maximum amounts for some and minimum amounts of others.

Since that time, the federal dietary guidelines and nutrition science behind them has evolved. Today, we have a greater understanding of dietary patterns and their effects on health, and we recognize that people tend to build their diets around foods, which are made up of a variety of nutrients, rather than just individual nutrients.

To be consistent with the latest nutrition science and federal dietary guidelines, the FDA is proposing an updated definition of the “healthy” claim for use on food packaging, including that: 

  • A food has to contain a certain amount of a food group like fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, and dairy.
  • A food can’t contain too much saturated fat, sodium, or added sugars.

The proposed rule is also consistent with recent changes to the Nutrition Facts label. For example, the Nutrition Facts label must now declare added sugars to help people maintain healthy dietary practices.

How Would the Proposed “Healthy” Definition Work?

Here are a few results of the proposed new definition for the claim “healthy.”

  • Foods like salmon, avocados, and olive oil, which under the current regulations do not qualify for use of the “healthy” claim, would qualify under the proposed definition. Foods like sweetened cereals and yogurt that have more than the amount of added sugars permitted would no longer qualify.
  • And plain, non-carbonated water and plain, carbonated water could be labeled “healthy” as well. Under the current regulation, water cannot be labeled “healthy.”

As a shopper, all you would have to do is look for the claim “healthy” — or variations such as “healthier” and “healthiest” — on a food package to know you’re buying something that meets the FDA’s definition of “healthy.”

What are the Potential Benefits?

Heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, certain cancers and overweight and obesity are among the leading causes of death and disability in the U.S., and minority groups are at greater risk of many of those diseases. For example, while more than 4 in 10 American adults have high blood pressure, that number increases to almost 6 in 10 for non-Hispanic Black adults.

Updating the “healthy” definition is a step towards providing the public with information that can help them identify food choices that can help lead to reducing diet-related chronic diseases and advancing health equity. Additionally, updating the “healthy” definition could lead to more healthy foods in the marketplace if some manufacturers choose to reformulate or produce products that meet the new definition.

The FDA Wants to Hear from You

If you want to share your thoughts on the proposed rule, you can submit comments to the FDA by February 16, 2023. Submit electronic comments to http://www.regulations.gov. Submit written comments to the Dockets Management Staff (HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, rm. 1061, Rockville, MD 20852. All comments should be identified with the docket number FDA-2016-D-2335.

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