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As FDA considers redefining the term "healthy" to make it align with current nutrition science and the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, this brief explores the controversial use of "healthy" claims on food product labels.

A label is a quick and easy way for consumers to identify foods that are “healthy.” However, claims about health on a brand’s packaging are not always accurate, and even be deceptive. According to one study, 60 percent of consumers look to food and beverage products to support their overall health; however, the same survey found “widespread confusion” as consumers try to decipher what is and is not healthy. Many foods with labels containing claims related to health and nutrition are high in other unhealthy nutrients. For example, a food product might include a “high fiber” claim, asserting healthfulness to consumers despite having an unhealthy level of added sugars. That’s why the FDA is currently updating its guidance for the use of the term “healthy” on product labels. 

In a new issue brief for CAFS’s Labels Unwrapped project, author Suzanne Kelley MFALP’22 outlines how the federal government regulates “healthy” on food labels. Delving into the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) requirements for different levels of health claims on food labels, as well as the scientific evidence needed to corroborate those claims, this brief aims to break down the true meaning of health claims used on food packaging and support informed consumer choices. The brief also compares FDA’s approach to food labelling with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a tool often used when crafting food and nutrition policy.  

This resource also addresses FDA’s recent efforts to define “healthy” using a “food group-based approach” in combination with limits on certain nutrients (saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars) to align use of the term “healthy” with current nutrition science, the updated Nutrition Facts label, and the recommendations included in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020–2025. This criteria would consider “overall nutrient content” rather than individual nutrients, in addition to nutrient density, limit certain nutrients, and contemplate the use of symbols and ratings systems to help consumers easily understand the information. (The comment period for the proposed rule is open until December 28, 2022). 

This publication was made possible with support from the United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Library, Agricultural Research Service.