It’s been right there on the label for more than 30 years. Healthy Choice frozen meals and entrees have been a go-to for people in a rush who want to eat something convenient but seemingly good for them. Chicken parm, sweet and sour chicken - microwaves around the country are humming with them right now. The brand represents 60 percent of sales of all products labeled as “healthy” in the market today, with more than 200 million meals sold last year.
But the Food and Drug Administration’s efforts to update the current definition of “healthy” may drive parent company Conagra Brands in another direction entirely.
“It is our strong conviction that if FDA’s proposal is adopted in its current form, companies like Conagra will have every incentive to shift their innovation efforts away from products labeled as ‘healthy’ and towards less healthy options,” the company wrote in comments to the FDA last month.
The remarks came in response to the FDA’s announcement in September that the agency planned to change the rules for nutrition labels that go on the front of food packages to indicate that they are “healthy.” Dozens of other food manufacturers and industry organizations have joined Conagra in claiming the new standards are draconian and will result in most current food products not making the cut, or in unappealing product reformulations.
Under the proposal, manufacturers can label their products “healthy” only if they contain a meaningful amount of food from at least one of the main food groups such as fruit, vegetable or dairy, as recommended by federal dietary guidelines. They must also adhere to specific limits for certain nutrients, such as saturated fat, sodium and added sugars.
[No cow needed: FDA proposes that plant-based beverages can still be labeled ‘milk’]
It’s the added sugar limit that has been the sticking point for many food executives. The FDA’s previous rules put limits around saturated fat and sodium but did not include limits on added sugars.
The Consumer Brands Association, which represents 1,700 major food companies from General Mills to Pepsi, wrote a 54-page comment to the FDA in which it stated the proposed rule was overly restrictive and would result in a framework that would automatically disqualify a vast majority of packaged foods.
“We are particularly concerned by the overly stringent proposed added sugars thresholds. We appreciate FDA’s interest in assessing added sugars intake. We believe, however, that FDA’s restrictive approach to added sugars content in foods described as healthy is unwarranted and outside FDA’s authority given the lack of scientific consensus on the relationship between sugar intake and diet-related disease,” the association stated.
The proposed rule, if finalized, they said, would violate the First Amendment rights of food companies and could harm both consumers and manufacturers.
The Sugar Association has an issue with the added sugar limit; Campbell Soup is more focused on that sodium.
SNAC International, which represents the snack industry, has said the new proposed rules are too restrictive, and the International Dairy Foods Association said the FDA’s definition of healthy is out of alignment with other well-established nutrition policies and health professional recommendations, and that things like low-fat chocolate milk and cottage cheese wouldn’t make the cut with the new rules.
Virtually every part of the food industry appeared disgruntled (here are the 402 comments about the proposed rule). Baby food company Happy Family Organics said the proposed rule probably would lead to an unintended exclusion of some nutrient-rich products. And the American Cheese Society took a more philosophical approach, saying the word “healthy” isn’t that helpful on a label and should be used in a complete diet or lifestyle context rather than in a nutrient or single food-focused context.
“What we eat, how and when we eat, even with whom we eat, and our lifestyle influences what is healthy for a group or an individual. ‘Healthy’ is a lifestyle that includes exercise, mental well-being and other aspects beyond food,” the society wrote in its comment to the agency.
So, how big an effect would these new rules have on consumers’ behavior? Not much, if you ask the FDA.
On Page 59195 of the full rule, the agency has this remarkably pessimistic projection of the rule’s impact: “Summary of Costs and Benefits: Some consumers use nutrient content claims such as ‘healthy’ to inform their food purchases. We estimate that a small number (0 to 0.4 percent of people that try to follow current dietary guidelines) of these consumers would use the ‘healthy’ implied nutrient content claim to make meaningful, long-lasting food purchasing decisions.”
The FDA may not be far off. A new research paper published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing analyzed hundreds of international studies about how effective front-of-package nutrition labeling is in providing usable information to consumers.
The answer: Not very.
The authors found that the most effective means of conveying nutrition information is a graphic warning label, as has been adopted in Chile, Peru, Uruguay, Mexico and Israel. In Chile, black warning labels shaped like stop signs are required for packaged food and drinks that exceed, per 100 grams: 275 calories, 400 milligrams of sodium, 10 grams of sugar or four grams of saturated fats.
A similar system was recommended for American foods by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Association of SNAP Nutrition Education Administrators, the Association of State Public Health Nutritionists and the American Heart Association.
According to the AHA, the majority of the U.S. population under-consumes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and low-fat and fat-free dairy, which results in inadequate intakes of dietary fiber, potassium, calcium and vitamin D. At the same time, Americans over-consume saturated fat, sodium and added sugars.
The AHA approves of the FDA’s new healthy definition focusing on nutrient-dense foods and discouraging the addition of unhealthy amounts of sugar, fat and salt. But, it says, the “healthy” claim should not appear on heavily processed, non-nutrient-dense foods that have been manipulated to meet the claim’s criteria, such as via fortification.
The FDA’s goal is to be in line with the most recent dietary guidelines, which suggested Americans 2 years old and older keep their intake of added sugars to less than 10 percent of total daily calories - so, for a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s no more than 200 calories from added sugars. Under the FDA’s proposed rule, grains and dairy products could contain only 2.5 grams of added sugar per serving, and other products such as fruits, vegetables, meats, nuts and eggs could not contain any added sugar.
Laura Reiley is the business of food reporter for The Washington Post. She was previously a food critic at the Tampa Bay Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Baltimore Sun. She has authored four books, has cooked professionally and is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy. She is a two-time James Beard finalist and in 2017 was a Pulitzer finalist.