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Will Redefining ‘Healthy’ for Food Packaging Help Reduce Debilitating Chronic Disease?

Are you buying healthy foods? Is there a chance you’ve been misled by food package labeling? Maybe… But “healthy” proclamations may be redefined in an effort to combat chronic diseases which, oftentimes, are debilitating.

In the fall of 2022, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed updated criteria for when foods can be labeled with the nutrient content claim “healthy” on the packaging. This proposed rule would align the definition of the “healthy” claim with current nutrition science, the updated Nutrition Facts label and the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

More than 80% of people in the U.S. aren’t eating enough vegetables, fruit and dairy. And most people consume too much added sugars, saturated fat and sodium. Therefore, the proposed rule is part of the agency’s ongoing commitment to helping consumers improve nutrition and dietary patterns to help reduce the burden of chronic disease and advance health equity.

Could this Update Benefit People with Disabilities Most?

The updated criteria will likely be especially beneficial for people with disabilities, chronic conditions and certain health ailments. That’s because statistics show that people with disabilities are less likely to be of healthy weight and more likely to be obese than people without disabilities. Data states that:

  • Children and adults with mobility limitations and intellectual or learning disabilities are at the greatest risk for obesity.
  • 20% of children 10 through 17 years of age who have special health care needs are obese compared with 15% of children of the same ages without special health care needs.
  • The annual healthcare costs of obesity that are related to disability are estimated at approximately $44 billion.
women grocery shopping in a motorized cart, with service dog
(Shutterstock)

Time for Healthier Foods

The proposed rule comes on the heels of the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, as well as the release of the related national strategy, which aims to end hunger, improve nutrition and physical activity, reduce diet-related diseases (i.e diabetes, cardiovascular disease) and close disparity gaps by 2030.

“Nutrition is key to improving our nation’s health,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. “Healthy food can lower our risk for chronic disease. But too many people may not know what constitutes ‘healthy’ food. FDA’s move will help educate more Americans to improve health outcomes, tackle health disparities and save lives.”

The proposed rule would update the “healthy” claim definition to better account for how all the nutrients in various food groups contribute and may work synergistically to create healthy dietary patterns and improve health. Under the proposed definition for the updated “healthy” claim, which is based on current nutrition science, more foods that are part of a healthy dietary pattern and recommended by the Dietary Guidelines would be eligible to use the claim on their labeling, including nuts and seeds, higher fat fish (such as salmon), certain oils and water.

“Diet-related chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes, are the leading causes of death and disability in the U.S. and disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minority groups,” said FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf, M.D.

He continued, “[This] action is an important step toward accomplishing a number of nutrition-related priorities, which include empowering consumers with information to choose healthier diets and establishing healthy eating habits early. It can also result in a healthier food supply.”

A Hispanic mother and daughter with disabilities cook together
source: Shutterstock

Under the proposed definition, in order to be labeled with the “healthy” claim on food packaging, the products would need to:

  • Contain a certain meaningful amount of food from at least one of the food groups or subgroups (e.g., fruit, vegetable, dairy, etc.) recommended by the Dietary Guidelines.
  • Adhere to specific limits for certain nutrients, such as saturated fat, sodium and added sugars. The threshold for the limits is based on a percent of the Daily Value (DV) for the nutrient and varies depending on the food and food group. The limit for sodium is 10% of the DV per serving (230 milligrams per serving).

For example, a cereal would need to contain ¾ ounces of whole grains and contain no more than 1 gram of saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium and 2.5 grams of added sugars.

“Healthy eating patterns are associated with improved health, yet most people’s eating patterns do not align with current dietary recommendations,” said Susan Mayne, Ph.D., Director of the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “In addition to [this] action, we continue to advance a number of FDA initiatives and explore new ways to coordinate, leverage and amplify important work going on across the nutrition ecosystem to help improve people’s diets and make a profound impact on the health of current and future generations.”

Along with empowering consumers, adopting the updated definition may help foster a healthier food supply if some manufacturers reformulate (e.g., add more vegetables or whole grains to meet criteria) or develop products that meet the updated definition.

Because consumers have long been interested in finding ways to more easily identify healthy foods, the agency is also in the process of studying and exploring the development of a symbol that manufacturers could use to show that their product meets the “healthy” claim criteria. The agency realizes that consumers are busy and, while shopping, may be seeking a quick way to identify and select healthy products. The updated “healthy” claim, and potential symbol, together would act as quick signals to help consumers identify healthier food choices more easily.

The FDA participated in the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health and will continue to take steps in support of the national strategy to improve nutrition and health and empower all consumers to make and have access to healthy choices. Specifically, the agency says it remains committed to continuing to create a healthier food supply through its recently released guidance to reduce sodium in processed, packaged and prepared foods; to providing consumers with accessible nutrition information about the foods they eat; and to providing the industry with recommendations on how to use dietary guidance statements on food labeling.

(Shutterstock)

Future planned actions include:

  • Developing a front-of-package (FOP) labeling system to quickly and more easily communicate nutrition information to empower consumers to make healthy decisions.
  • Facilitating making nutrition information easily available when grocery shopping online.
  • Facilitating lowering the sodium content of food in the food supply, including by issuing revised, lower voluntary sodium reduction targets for industry.
  • Holding a public meeting regarding future steps the federal government could take to facilitate lowering added sugar consumption.
  • Releasing additional education and outreach efforts to ensure that parents and caregivers are aware of the latest recommendations for healthy eating in young children and for taking steps to reduce exposure to toxic elements in food.

Want more nutritional guidance? Read these articles by AmeriDisability: 

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