After 30 Years, the FDA Wants to Change Its Definition of Healthy Food

The new guidelines will focus on foods that benefit overall health instead of just focusing on their numbers.

November 30, 2022

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Photo by: Maria Korneeva/Getty Images

Maria Korneeva/Getty Images

The term “healthy” is a voluntary claim you may see on packaged foods and beverages in the grocery store. It generally means the food meets certain standards of nutrition as defined by the Food and Drug Administration guidelines. The FDA’s last definition of “healthy” food is from 1994 and by today’s nutrition standards is pretty archaic. Finally, almost 30 years later the FDA is proposing a new definition. Find out what the term currently means and what the new proposed definition of “healthy” by the FDA.

The FDA nutrient content claim “healthy” was defined in 1994. It means that a food meets limits for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. The food must also provide at least 10% of the daily value for one or more of the following nutrients: vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein and fiber. The problem is, according to these guidelines, foods like salmon are excluded from meeting the “healthy” definition as the fat content is high, even though salmon contains healthy fat.

The focus of the new “healthy” definition is to make sure that all nutrient-dense foods qualify. Under the new proposed FDA definition, a food product would need to contain a certain amount of ingredients from at least one food group or subgroup (like fruit, protein foods, dairy) recommended by the 2020-2025 dietary guidelines for Americans. Healthy foods should also contain limited amounts of added sugars, saturated fat and sodium in accordance to the type of food group it’s in. For example, dairy products will contain more sugar and fat than whole fruit and vegetables.

It should be noted that under this definition, raw whole fruits and veggies automatically qualify for the “healthy” claim due to their nutrient profile and positive contribution to a healthy dietary pattern.

The FDA has also started to conduct research on a symbol that can be voluntary used on food products that meet the definition of “healthy.” This would make it easy for consumers to quickly glance at the label or helpful for those who may not understand how to read nutrition fact panels. As of yet, no symbol has been decided.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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