The FDA Is Out to Redefine ‘Healthy.’ Will It Make a Difference?

A Tufts nutrition expert shares his take on the FDA's decision to revamp its criteria.


Avocado photo via shepard

Is a bowl of Frosted Flakes healthier than an avocado? It depends who you ask.

Just about any health expert under the sun would say no. The FDA, on the other hand, sees things differently—at least for now.

To label products “healthy,” manufacturers must meet criteria set forth by the FDA. The current standards—in part because of the low-fat hysteria of decades past—vilify fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and prioritize beneficial nutrients such as iron and vitamin C. Under those rules, granola bar maker Kind received FDA criticism last year for calling its fruit-and-nut bars “healthy and tasty,” but fat-free cookies and sugary breakfast cereals can still technically be marketed as health foods.

Hopefully, that’s all about to change.

The FDA has announced that it’s reassessing its criteria, looking to nutrition experts and the general public to formulate a new definition of healthy. It’s a move that Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, says is long overdue.

“They’re still based on 30- or 40-year-old science focusing on fat and single nutrients, rather than thinking about the overall health of the food,” he says. “It’s based on total fat content, saturated fat content, other isolated nutrients, rather than on the modern science, which tells us that health is related to the quality of the food consumed.”

Mozaffarian says objectively deciding what’s healthy and what’s not is complicated, but that a better standard would measure the good of the food—whether it’s primarily made up of whole, minimally processed ingredients, for example—against the bad, such as starch, sugar, sodium, and trans fat content. “In terms of the bad, thinking about starch and sugar is really important,” he says.

But the bigger issue, arguably, is whether slapping a “healthy” label on some foods, and stripping it from others, will change the way Americans eat. Mozaffarian says it very well could. A 2015 Gallup poll, for example, found that roughly half of Americans still avoid fat, while fewer actively avoid salt; changing the conversation, and the marketing, around food could cause those numbers to switch places.

“If it’s just a government label, evidence shows that it doesn’t have a major effect,” Mozaffarian says. “But if you’re basically restricting the billions of dollars of food marketing with these rules and regulations, which is really what this is about, of course marketing has a huge influence.”