What does “healthy food” mean?

What does “healthy food” mean?

September 09, 2016

What does “healthy food” mean?

It might seem like an easy question, but US experts at the Food and Drug Administration have long been considering a review of their definition of “healthy” when it comes to food products.

When comparing an avocado with a sweet snack, the natural reaction is to class the first one as “healthy” and the second as less so. However, according to national regulations on the labelling of food products, this may not be the case. The USA is a clear example of this paradox: the word “healthy” may appear on the packaging of cereals sweetened with sugar but cannot be displayed on a slice of salmon or a bottle of olive oil. So how is this possible? It all depends on the meaning each country attributes to the term on the basis of national legislation, and this can deviate significantly from what common sense would suggest. Nevertheless, things may soon be changing, as the experts in the USA are considering altering the meaning of the word “healthy”.

The meaning of words
The Food and Drugs Administration (FDA), the US body in charge of pharmaceutical and food regulations, still uses criteria set out in 1994 to ascertain the meaning of the word “healthy” when attributed to food. Consequently, it may be defined (and therefore the term may appear on packaging) as a product which is within the pre-established limits of total fats and saturates, salt, cholesterol and contain certain micronutrients such as vitamins and fibre. However, only using fats to ascertain whether a food is healthy is not enough. “We now have data which suggests that it is not just about how much fat there is in the food but also the quality of that fat”, says Joan Salge Blake, associate professor at Boston University's nutrition program, pointing out that “good” fats contained in foods like salmon, nuts or avocado and olive oil improve the nutritional content of a meal. As a result, the American nutritional recommendations go against what is now thought of as “healthy”: indeed, recent nutritional guidelines in the USA advise people to eat salmon and nuts as sources of protein, therefore suggesting adding ingredients to your meal which, according to the regulations currently in force, are not defined as being healthy. “I think it would be a good idea to update the definitions to keep up with scientific research in the same way that nutritional guidelines have been altered”, argues Sara Haas, spokesperson of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

It all started with a cereal bar
For many years, food producers have focused on reducing the fat content of their products so that they can be classified as “healthy”, but in order to achieve this objective without compromising on taste and consistency, they often needed to add other ingredients, such as sugar. These additional extras, which were insignificant at the start of the 1990s, have now reached worrying levels and are the subject of many studies demonstrating how they can be harmful to people’s health. But why only now, 20 years after the original definition, has the FDA decided to review its definition of the term “healthy”? The spark was a letter of complaint sent on 17 March 2015 to a food company regarding a range of dried fruit bars. In the letter, the experts from the FDA explained that the term “healthy” cannot appear on the packaging of this product because it exceeded the legal fat content limit in order to be considered as healthy food. The company replied to the FDA requesting that they review the criteria for defining a food as healthy. “We hope that the FDA changes its definition so that we don’t find ourselves in the ridiculous situation where a sugary cereal bar is considered as healthy while a handful of almonds isn’t”, said the manager of the company. The request certainly put the cat among the pigeons, even though it may take a while for any changes to be made. In the meantime, the key is to keep using your common sense and follow the opinions of the experts, including those at the BCFN who are always committed to promoting healthy eating.

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