The FDA sours on sugar

In its new proposed rule that defines “healthy” on packaged food labels, the Food & Drug Administration is cracking down on sugar and nutrient fortification of junk foods.
FDA update of healthy
The FDA proposed a rule this week to update the definition of healthy on packaged food labels./Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a proposed rule this week that would update the definition of healthy claims on food labels.

The existing healthy regulation, which was issued in 1994, is based on the nutrient content of a food. At that time, nutrition science supported the research that individual nutrients could help consumers maintain healthy dietary practices.

But that led to manufacturers of nutrient-fortified sugary cereals and snack foods to print healthy claims on package labels.

While nutrient-dense foods are still a focus, those high in sugar, saturated fat and sodium do not conform with the most recent Dietary Guidelines, 2020-2025, or current nutrition science.

Americans are now advised to “consume a healthy dietary pattern,” with nutrient dense defined as those “foods and beverages that provide vitamins, minerals and other health-promoting components and have little added sugars, saturated fat and sodium.”

While limits on saturated fat and sodium have been in place, the proposed ruling puts a tighter lid on sugar. A packaged food cannot contain more than 2.5 grams of sugar per serving to be labeled “healthy.” That would eliminate a snack like a granola bar, which currently qualifies as healthy because of its nutrient content but would be too high in sugar.

Raw fruits and vegetables, bottled water, whole eggs, nuts and seeds would be permitted to make healthy claims even if they can’t meet the criteria.

Additionally, the FDA is asking that daily servings from each of the food groups guide the healthy claim. For example, a healthy food would need to contain a 1/2 cup serving of fruit or 3/4 cup of dairy, as recommended by the dietary guidelines, and meet the proposed limits for saturated fat, sodium and added sugars. This makes it easier for consumers to make smart choices through a varied diet, as people choose foods, not nutrients.

Diet-related diseases, such as cancer, heart disease and stroke, are still among the leading causes of death in the U.S. and more than half of all American adults suffer from cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. The risk of these health conditions, as well as obesity, can be reduced through a healthier diet, the FDA stated in its proposal.

Although the new healthy labeling proposal doesn’t apply to restaurants or foodservice operations, a clearer, updated definition can help purchasing departments make healthier decisions when choosing food products.

The proposed rule hasn’t yet been published in the Federal Register, but once it has, the FDA will seek comments from the public and health professionals for 90 days after publication.

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