As if its plate wasn’t full enough trying to parse what the heck natural means, the FDA says it’s also going to tweak the way it defines the word healthy, a seemingly simple term that, in the agency’s hands, got twisted into a fine example of useless bureaucratese. (Under the current rules, Frosted Flakes are healthy, but an avocado is not.)
The main cause for the problem is that it’s been more than two decades since the FDA has changed what qualifies as “healthy,” even though the thinking of food scientists and nutritionists has evolved considerably in that time frame. This update, then, is an attempt to modernize the definition so it’s in keeping with current science. Right now, “healthy” food can’t exceed a set limit for fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium — those were the dietary bugaboos back in 1994 — but it can contain as much added sugar as it damn well pleases.
Although added sugar has since been linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems, it wasn’t setting off alarms like MSG and trans fats were 20 years ago. In practice, that means Pop-Tarts, cereals, and other items that are ultraprocessed and very high in sugar can call themselves “healthy,” but legitimately healthy foods cannot. The best irony might be encapsulated in this fact: The new dietary guidelines issued this year advised people to eat less food with added sugars and more good proteins like salmon and nuts, neither of which can legally brand itself as “healthy.”
The FDA tells The Wall Street Journal that it will start seeking input from experts, as well as the public, in order to figure out the tweaks, but like everything else on the federal level, the process will take several years.