The FDA intends to more closely define food labeling words such as “natural” and “healthy”, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced Thursday in a speech at the National Food Policy Conference. He also expressed plans to create an icon or label to show consumers that a given food is a healthy choice.
These changes are allegedly part of a comprehensive, multi-year plan to reduce rates of obesity and metabolic diseases, reports CNBC. Gottlieb compared these changes to previous FDA efforts to reduce the health hazards of smoking.
“Improving the nutrition and diet of Americans would be another transformative effort toward reducing the burden of many chronic diseases, ranging from diabetes to cancer to heart disease,” Gottlieb said. “The public health gains of such efforts would almost certainly dwarf any single medical innovation or intervention we could discover.”
The FDA has resisted defining the words “healthy” and “natural” for years, despite mounting concern and lawsuits over those claims on food products.
New Food Economy reports that the FDA has received 7,600 comments regarding an official definition of the term “natural,” which the outlet reports currently means that “nothing artificial or synthetic has been added to a food that you wouldn’t normally expect to be there.”
The word has been so overused in the industry as to become essentially meaningless. Scholars at Duke University even submitted comments to the FDA to this effect in 2016, asking the agency to place a disclaimer on products using the word to “alert consumers to the fact that there is no shared legal definition of ‘natural’ for food labeling.”
Current guidelines for “healthy,” meanwhile, date to 1993, aligning the word with the product’s fat content and levels of certain nutrients. The goal of the FDA, according to Gottlieb, is to move away from nutritionism, focusing more on the health benefits of eating whole foods.
“Traditionally, we’ve focused primarily on the nutrients contained in food in considering what is healthy,” Gottlieb said. “But people eat foods, not nutrients.”
Gottlieb also highlighted the possibility that certain ingredients may be labeled with more “readable and understandable” names, such as salt in favor of potassium chloride or vitamin B6 instead of pyridoxine, to further increase transparency for consumers.
The FDA will also support some changes that were started during the Obama Administration, such as updates to nutrition facts labels and calorie labeling requirements at chain restaurants, which will go into full effect by the beginning of May.
Gottlieb first announced his intention to look more closely at the definitions of these vaguer food terms in October, noting at the time that his goal was to ensure that companies use these terms to reflect the actual healthfulness of the food, rather than as marketing claims.
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