The FDA has proposed a revamped definition of what a “healthy” food is, and while there are some improvements, it shows that the federal government continues to get it wrong on nutrition. Action Alert!
Under the old definition, processed yogurt packed with sugar could be called “healthy,” but salmon, eggs, and water could not! The updated proposal corrects some of these absurdities but also reflects the government’s misguided, outdated, and ultimately incorrect nutrition advice. This demonstrates that the government shouldn’t be in the business of telling us what is healthy in the first place, because they are not equipped to do so, and they are too susceptible to corporate influence that prioritizes the profits of special interests over public health.
The current definition was set in 1994 and allows food manufacturers to add the word “healthy” to their products as long as the products do not exceed certain limits for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium and provide 10 percent of the daily value of certain nutrients (vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, protein, or dietary fiber). Using these criteria, sugary cereals and yogurts aimed at children could be considered “healthy” while foods widely regarded as healthy but high in fat (like salmon and avocados) were ineligible to use that distinction.
Under the new definition, a “healthy” food would need to contain a minimum amount of one of several food groups (vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, protein, or certain oils) and be under proposed limits for saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars. Raw fruits and vegetables would automatically qualify as healthy. These limits can vary depending on the food. Many sugary cereals, highly sweetened yogurts, and white breads that may currently qualify as “healthy” would be removed under the proposed definition, and salmon would be added to the “healthy” category.
It goes without saying that sugar-laden foods should not be identified as healthy, so including a limit for added sugar in the definition of “healthy” is a no-brainer. We would argue that the proposed definition doesn’t go far enough, as the government shouldn’t be condoning the consumption of any added sugar. The proposed definition allows a maximum of 2.5 grams of added sugar for specific foods like ¾ cup of yogurt, for example, or 5 percent of the daily value for added sugar, and a “healthy” food must contain a certain amount of food from fruit, vegetables, grains, dairy, or protein. Remember, just a few years ago the FDA updated its Nutrition Facts Panel and determined that the daily recommended value for added sugar should be 10 percent of total calories, or 50 grams of added sugar per day. As we said at the time, to imply that we need any amount of added sugar is false and misleading due to the myriad negative health effects associated with sugar consumption.
Even though foods like salmon could be labeled as “healthy” under the proposed definition, the government is still wrong about saturated fat. The new definition places strict limits on saturated fats to less than 10 percent of daily calories. This bad advice comes from the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans which continues to propagate the debunked notion that we should be limiting saturated fats in our diet.
We’ve been criticizing the government’s advice on saturated fat for years. Historically the claim has been an alleged link to heart disease. However, more recent evidence shows that saturated fat is not, in fact, linked to heart disease. Rather saturated fat has been proven to have a number of health benefits, including improved cardiovascular risk factors and liver health, stronger bones, healthy lungs and brain, proper nerve signaling, and a strong immune system. Some saturated fats, such as coconut oil, are considered superfoods.
As noted by ANH Board Member Ronald Hoffman, MD:
Observational studies of large populations that “prove” risks associated with high intakes of saturated fats are tainted by the likelihood that big consumers of meat, dairy, eggs and tropical oils might be eschewing healthier foods like fruits, vegetables and unprocessed and fiber-rich starches. They might also consume more sugar and junk food. Perhaps they exercise less. This makes it look like saturated fats are the problem, when it’s really overall diet quality, and/or healthy lifestyle habits that account for the variance.
While we’re on the topic, the government is also wrong about the need to limit cholesterol because we now know that eating foods that are rich in cholesterol doesn’t increase your cholesterol levels. In fact, eating a diet high in carbohydrates is the primary factor for high cholesterol levels.
We also have to look at why the government is so wrong about nutrition, because it isn’t simply ignorance. The development of dietary guidelines is a crony feast, with Big Food companies spending millions to lobby Congress to influence the guidelines in their favor. This has been going on for years. In 1991, the USDA halted publication of its Food Pyramid due to pushback from the meat and dairy lobbying groups that objected to how their products were displayed in the pyramid. The Food Pyramid was released a year later after industry concerns were appeased. In the most recent iteration of the guidelines, recommendations to lower added sugar and alcohol consumption contained in a scientific advisory report were not carried forward into the final guidelines after heavy lobbying from those industries. When public health runs up against industry interests, too often Big Food wins.
Even if the new definition corrects some obvious blunders, the record clearly indicates that the government is in no place to tell us what is and isn’t “healthy.” If you’re looking for real nutrition advice, you can reference ANH-International’s Food4Health Plate.
Action Alert! Post a comment to the FDA’s official docket explaining the problems with their proposed definition of “healthy.” Please send your message immediately.