Dick Groves
Editor, Cheese Reporter


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Defining ‘Healthy’ Seems To Be An Unhealthy Undertaking

The deadline has passed for submitting comments on the US Food and Drug Administration’s process for redefining the “healthy” claim for food labeling, and now the agency gets to sift through the comments and try to come up with some sort of new definition. We wish the agency the best of luck in this endeavor; it will need it.

As reported on our front page last week, FDA received more than 1,100 comments by the time the comment period closed in late April. Many of these comments appear to have come from consumers, which shows that this is an issue that affects more than just the food industry.

Comments are all over the map when it comes to defining the term “healthy.”
But that’s just one reason why this is an extremely difficult undertaking for FDA.
Last October, we recommended that FDA stop trying to define the term “healthy,” noting that the more often that claim shows up on food labels, the less healthy people have become (for more details, please see “FDA Should Stop Trying To Define ‘Healthy’,” in our Oct. 14, 2016 issue by scanning the QR Code above).

But as the National Milk Producers Federation pointed out in its comments, any effort to bar the use of “healthy” on food labels “would likely result in protracted litigation,” given the number of products that currently use this claim. Regardless of the outcome of such lawsuits, a lengthy period of regulatory uncertainty “could lead to more consumer confusion, not less.”

So we fully expect FDA to go forward with its plans to redefine the term “healthy,” even in an environment in which President Trump has basically declared war on new regulations. Technically, this isn’t a new regulation, it’s modernizing an old one.

And in redefining the term “healthy,” FDA won’t really be adding any new costs; rather, it will provide more certainty for food companies, and reduce the likelihood of future money- and time-consuming lawsuits.

One of the big problems with trying to redefine “healthy” is that many comments referenced the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, but those guidelines have changed quite a bit over the years.

Unfortunately, they haven’t changed enough, in our opinion. For example, on the issue of dietary cholesterol, the 2015-2016 edition of the Dietary Guidelines states that individuals “should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible while consuming a healthy eating pattern.”

There are two problems here. First, that dietary cholesterol advice contradicts the findings of the final report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. The DGAC declined to bring forward the previous Dietary Guidelines recommendation that cholesterol intake be limited to no more than 300 milligrams per day “because available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol...”

So if FDA uses the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines as the basis for defining “healthy,” it will be going against the findings of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. The agency would be best off not including dietary cholesterol in any definition of “healthy.”

Second, the Dietary Guidelines refer to a “healthy eating pattern,” but what exactly is that? And if the federal government itself is talking about healthy eating patterns, how can it also try to define the term “healthy” as it applies to individual foods and beverages?

The dietary cholesterol issue nicely illustrates what is arguably the biggest problem when trying to define “healthy”: the science is continually changing, isn’t the same as it was 25 or 50 years ago, and will probably not be settled on many dietary constituents for many years, if ever.

Dietary cholesterol is one example of this, but issues such as saturated fat and sodium also illustrate how unsettled the science is on what exactly is “healthy” and what isn’t. In short, it’s complicated.

Fortunately for FDA, there is another approach that can be taken when trying to define “healthy.” That is, define the term so that it can be used on nutrient-dense foods.

That would lead to another problem: how to define “nutrient-dense food.” But at least it would mean that products such as bottled water can’t be labeled “healthy,” since they don’t contain any actual nutrients.

No doubt some people would criticize the nutrient-density approach because it fails to focus on nutrients to avoid, such as saturated fat, total fat, sodium or added sugars. But there’s already plenty of information available about those nutrients (plus dietary cholesterol, among others), on the Nutrition Facts panel.

Indeed, the Nutrition Facts panel is sort of the opposite of a focus on nutrient density. It lists calories, total fat, saturated and other fats, cholesterol and sodium, all of which consumers have been told for decades (and for better or worse) to avoid, or at least limit.

Meanwhile, nutrients that are under-consumed (according to the Dietary Guidelines), such as potassium, don’t even have to be listed on the Nutrition Facts panel (at least until the new Nutrition Facts panel goes into effect, in the case of potassium).

So maybe FDA’s approach here should be to allow use of a “healthy” claim on foods that are nutrient-dense.

Given that not defining the term “healthy” isn’t really an option for FDA, the agency should seriously consider mandating that the term only be used with nutrient-dense foods. Yes, that approach would favor a lot of dairy products, but there are worse things that FDA could do than allow the claim “healthy” to be associated with dairy products.

Cheese Reporter welcomes letters to the editor. Comments should be sent to: Dick Groves by Fax at (608) 246-8431; or e-mail your comments to
dgroves @cheesereporter.com.


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