A little over two years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced its intention to redefine the word “healthy,” and exactly which foods can be labeled as such.
Especially shocking in the ever-changing world of nutrition, the FDA’s current regulatory definition of the term has not been updated since it was first established in 1993. For perspective, this is the same year that Bill Clinton started his first term as U.S. president, cell phones and the internet were both in their technological infancy, Michael Jackson was crushing the Super Bowl halftime show, and this article’s author was 10 years old. In other words, a long time ago.
Back then, the low-fat diet craze was in full swing, and the prevailing nutrition ideology was basically to scapegoat and paint the fat molecule with too broad a brush. Sugar-laden, yet low-fat foods like sweetened cereals, SpaghettiOs and fat-free puddings could be labeled as “healthy,” but not foods like avocados, nuts and salmon. As nutrition recommendations can be prone to do, this antiquated notion in recent years has become essentially obsolete and done a 180-degree about-face. Nutrition professionals now recognize and make an important distinction between “good fats” and “bad fats” and also focus on the importance of limiting sugar in the diet.
Two years into the process of revamping their archaic “healthy” designation, the FDA continues to struggle to even propose a new definition, let alone decide on one and turn it into law. They have received over 1,000 letters from health professionals, industry advocates and others. In the meantime, companies that sell things like bottled water, sugar-free gum and “mini-meals” want to be able to label their products as healthy. The longer the process continues, the more it feels like the FDA is headed farther down the rabbit hole.
But stepping back and taking a more macro view, many nutrition professionals think that it is inherently misleading and overly reductive to label any one food as “healthy.” Jocelyn Dubin, a registered dietitian and co-founder of Nourish Wellness Center in Santa Cruz, says that the term “healthy” is more accurately used when describing a whole diet. It’s also a concept based on each individual’s unique situation; what is healthy for one person may not be for another.
“The FDA’s impetus to try and create a definition of ‘healthy’ is flawed,” says Dubin, adding that it’s very arbitrary to single out certain ingredients and nutrient levels. “Healthy foods are foods that help that body to flourish and reduce the risk of chronic disease and illness,” she says. “Is it full of things that promote life?” She says examples of foods that do this are produce, seeds, nuts, and unprocessed plant oils, the latter three of which would not be considered “healthy,” according to the FDA’s outdated definition.
The controversial and often-complicated nature of the debate over the redefinition shows just how challenging it is to say without equivocation what exactly “healthy” means nowadays. Not only are there multiple popular diets out there based around specific foods and ingredients—paleo, keto, gluten-free, vegan—but what about artificial ingredients, genetically modified food and organic food? Should these all be factored in to the new definition?
“No,” says Dubin. “There is so much nutrition noise out there already; we don’t want to create further confusion.” Dubin emphasizes the individual, and how important it is consider the whole diet in context. She does say that in general, when considering a single food’s health status, to look for two simple attributes: a small ingredient list, and a quick expiration date. If a food meets both of those criteria, then it is probably “healthy”—whatever that means.