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The FDA is updating the definition of 'healthy' and designing new labels


What makes a food healthy? It is a complex question, but the Food and Drug Administration aims to help answer it with a new food package labeling system. The last time the agency defined healthy was back in 1994. That was at the height of the fat-free diet boom. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now to talk about how the idea of healthy has changed. Hi there.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hey, Juana - good to be here.

SUMMERS: So, Allison, tell us about these proposed changes.

AUBREY: Well, there's really two things happening here. The FDA is updating its working definition of healthy as it pertains to food labels, and they're developing a new healthy icon or symbol for food packages. The aim really is to have packaging reflect the current nutrition science, which has really evolved a lot over the last 25 years. So, you know, things that passed as healthy or qualified for a healthy claim back in 1994 - like white bread or highly sweetened yogurt or sugary cereals - simply because they were low in fat would no longer be able to have a healthy claim on the packaging.

And I'd say the FDA's guidance on this is, you know, overdue. The fat-free boom is long gone. It's widely recognized that some fats are good for us. We need them. So we put a new healthy icon on foods such as avocados, nuts, seeds, fatty fish like salmon, olive oil. You know, health-conscious people may be listening to this and saying it's about time.

SUMMERS: OK, so why is this happening now?

AUBREY: You know, the change comes at a time when the Biden administration has prioritized a goal of improving Americans' diets. And this has given that diet-related diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, are a top cause of death. This was a big focus at last week's White House food conference, and the labeling initiative is really part of the administration's new strategy announced at the conference. I'd say it's also a moment when, culturally, it's become a bit trickier to talk about food and diet, given the pushback on diet culture, on body shaming, and the real guilt and shame people can feel linked to body image.

SUMMERS: Yeah, and those are all really important concerns. But all of this just strikes me, Allison, as incredibly complicated.

AUBREY: Yeah. You know, a lot of health care providers and public health experts say it's really important at this time to both recognize and validate these concerns people have, while, at the same time, helping people understand that our diet - what we eat - does play a significant role of preventing or promoting chronic disease.

SUMMERS: So given how tricky and fraught this all can be, how is the Food and Drug Administration approaching this?

AUBREY: Well, the FDA is really a regulatory agency, and their approach is to kind of go by the science and to listen to, as they like to say, all their stakeholders, which does include the food industry - the companies that market the foods we eat. Where the agency has landed on this is that a healthy icon could help empower people with helpful information. I spoke to Susan Mayne. She's the director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the FDA.

SUSAN MAYNE: Most consumers will make decisions in a few seconds on whether they're going to purchase a product or not. So having something, like, healthy that can be on the front of the pack can help consumers make those quick decisions.

SUMMERS: So is there a consensus among nutrition and health experts that this is going to help?

AUBREY: I think there are mixed opinions. On the plus side, if someone is choosing between two packaged foods, and one has less salt, less sugar, and more healthy fats - qualifies for a healthy icon - that could be helpful. But there are limits to greenlighting foods on packaging. I mean, many of the healthiest foods don't come in packages. At a time we're told to eat more whole foods - more fruits and vegetables - there's criticism that a healthy icon kind of misses the mark. I spoke to Marion Nestle. She's nutrition professor emerita at New York University.

MARION NESTLE: I don't think we need health claims on food products at all. They're not about health. They're about marketing products. If you really want to eat healthy, you're going to be eating real food. You're not going to be eating products with labels on them.

AUBREY: I think her take is not shared by everyone, but it does show how hard it is to kind of reduce healthy eating to a simple icon. And really, to promote healthy patterns of eating, we'd likely need a whole bunch of broader initiatives - you know, nutrition education, cooking classes and integrating food and nutrition into the health care system.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you.

AUBREY: Thank you, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.