Using the word “healthy” on food labels faces added scrutiny under updated standards proposed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The agency’s plan to force manufacturers to show so-called healthy products contain limited amounts of some ingredients – fat and saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol – and minimum levels of nutrients –fiber, protein, iron, calcium and vitamins A and C – was welcome news for Melissa Keeney, RDN, a registered dietitian-nutritionist with Hartford HealthCare.

“In the nearly 30 years since the FDA started defining the word ‘healthy’ on food labels, nutrition science has changed,” she said, noting the new proposal aligns with Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025. “Current guidelines focus on the type of fat consumed rather than total fat, and foods lower in salt and added sugars.”

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Beyond the label

While food labels can help people with limited nutrition knowledge, Keeney said a healthy diet must:

  • Provide adequate fuel for your life
  • Include a items from different food groups for a variety of nutrients
  • Be enjoyable
  • Be realistic for your life

“A healthy diet is not just about eating healthy foods. It’s about having a healthy relationship with food,” Keeney explained.

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Word power

While she said people still need help understanding which foods are healthy and not – for example, the FDA doesn’t clearly define the word “natural,” which does not necessarily mean food has nutritional value – dismissing less healthy foods is not helpful either.

“All foods can fit into a ‘healthy’ diet,” Keeney began. “In fact, I believe a ‘healthy’ diet includes foods we eat for enjoyment as well. Food labels and dietary guidelines are suggestions and a starting point for people.”

If possible, she suggested people meet with a registered dietitian nutritionist to tailor a dietary plan to their individual nutritional needs and enjoyment.

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Stamp of approval

In looking at the recent FDA proposal, Keeney said the move promotes nutrient-dense foods like:

  • Olive oil
  • Salmon
  • Yogurt
  • Eggs
  • Mixed nuts

Items not considered nutrient dense and, therefore, not “healthy” include white bread and highly sweetened cereal, she added.

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Fit fats

Proposed limits on saturated fat, salt and added sugar, are key to keeping the body healthy and reducing risk of chronic diseases, Keeney said.

“Since the first labeling rules were put into place, we have learned more about types of fat. Choosing unsaturated fats like oils and nuts is more heart-healthy than saturated fats found in meat and dairy,” she explained, adding that eating foods lower in sodium is also better for heart health.

Calling the news “a piece of the puzzle,” she urged people to take charge of their own health.

“If you want to start eating more nutritiously, I suggest focusing on one small change at a time. Add another fruit or vegetable per day, have an extra glass of water, aim to make half of your grains whole, use herbs and spices instead of salt,” she said.

“These small changes really add up in the long run.”

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