What Does “Healthy” On A Food Label Really Mean?

By Randall Popelka, vice president, Government and Industry Affairs, Herbalife Nutrition
April 28, 2017

The nutrition information and claims on packaged food labels contain vital information for the health-conscious consumer.

One of the claims that needs to be updated in light of the latest nutrition science is “healthy.” In a process that will take months or years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reviewing the current regulation and meaning of the term with the goal of helping consumers select healthier food choices consistent with the 2015 Dietary Guidelines and other evidence-based recommendations.

At present, companies can label foods as “healthy” if they meet the requirements set in the regulation on fat, saturated fat, sodium, cholesterol and beneficial nutrients like protein, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium or iron.

But as we understand more about nutrition and the body, there’s now room for more nuance in how we label food and what constitutes “healthy.”

In order to redefine the term “healthy,” the FDA is seeking comments from the public and from those in the industry with a horse in the race. The agency is asking:

  • What types of food, if any, should be allowed to bear the term ‘‘healthy”? Should all food categories be subject to the same criteria?
  • What nutrients should be considered to define the term “healthy”?
  • Should the nutrients be intrinsic to the foods? Or could they be provided in part, or in total, via fortification?
  • What is consumers’ understanding of the meaning of the term “healthy” as it relates to food? What are consumers’ expectations of foods that carry a “healthy” claim?
  • What would be the costs to industry of the change?

The Herbalife Nutrition Position

Because our company’s nutrition philosophy is based on balanced nutrition, leading a healthy, active lifestyle and following a personalized approach, we have some thoughts on redefining “healthy.”

At a public FDA hearing on the issue in March 2017, we agreed that accurate and meaningful labeling of food products is essential for consumers to make informed choices. We supported the FDA’s move to be more specific with the “healthy” label requirements to ensure that current science drives the evolution of this important and influential regulation. We also submitted written comments to the agency in April 2017.

We made the following points in our written comments:

  1. Herbalife Nutrition recommends reflecting recommendations found in the Dietary Guidelines when redefining the nutrient content claim “healthy” for food labeling purpose.
  2. Since the current Dietary Guidelines state that nutrient-dense foods within calorie limits contribute to a healthy eating pattern, Herbalife Nutrition suggests allowing foods that are recommended in the Dietary Guidelines in their whole form or processed in such a way that does not materially degrade their nutritional value to bear the term “healthy.”
  3. To define the term “healthy” for foods that are processed using methods that are beyond those to preserve the food without degrading their nutritional value, Herbalife Nutrition suggests establishing a nutrient profile model to rate overall nutrient density of such foods.
  4. Herbalife Nutrition suggests that nutrients through fortification, provided the current fortification policy is followed, be considered when deciding whether a food can bear the term “healthy.”
  5. Herbalife Nutrition urges the agency to move away from the dichotomous paradigm of fresh fruits and vegetables as being “healthy,” while processed foods are not “healthy,” without considering nutrient density.

We applaud the FDA for taking this issue into consideration, and for making an effort to include all relevant perspectives.

What’s Next?

The FDA is early on in its process, so there will be ample opportunity for continued debate on this topic. More and more, consumers are turning to labels to make informed decisions about the food products they choose. For many consumers, if and how a product contributes to a healthy diet is an important criterion for choice. That’s why the FDA’s update of this regulation is so important. At Herbalife Nutrition, we look forward to working with the agency to establish a sound, science-based approach to redefining the term “healthy,” and in turn, equipping U.S. consumers with the information they need to make informed decisions.

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