What does "healthy" mean? The FDA has no clue, so it's asking consumers to weigh in


Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you. 

Except they have. Food marketers use language to entice us into spending money on a slew of products at the grocery store. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for products they perceive as healthier, according to a 2015 Nielsen survey. 

On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration got serious about modernizing the term "healthy." The federal organization said in a blog post it would begin collecting public comments on how consumers understand and use the word "healthy."  


"We want to give consumers the best tools and information about the foods they choose, with the goal of improving public health," Douglas Balentine, director of Office of Nutrition and Food Labeling at FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, wrote in the FDA blog post. 

The online forum for collecting comments will be open for 120 days starting Wednesday, Lauren Kotwicki, an FDA spokesperson, said in an email. After the initial comment period, the FDA will propose a new rule that will be open for public comment. Finally, after that comment period closes, the FDA will make a final ruling.  

In November 2015, the FDA collected public comments for defining "natural" and it received more than 5,000 responses, according to Quartz

What does healthy mean? 

Right now, not much. The FDA has a long history of trying to nail down this term. In 1993, the FDA published rules about how marketers could use "healthy," but boy are they antiquated at this point. "Healthy" was contingent upon the amount of fat in a given food, and there's no mention of sugar content as it relates to health. 

In April, the company that produces Kind bars encouraged the FDA to revisit its definition of healthy after a dispute over Kind's use of the word, Mic previously reported. The FDA heard from a number of parties (including a citizen petition from Kind) that Americans wanted a modernized definition of healthy, Kotwicki said. 

"The current definition for 'healthy' is based on outdated nutrition information, for example, an emphasis on the total amount of fat (low fat foods) rather than quality of fat," Kotwicki said, explaining that the FDA wants to modernize the definition of healthy so it is consistent with the new Nutrition Facts label.  

Of course, nutritional studies in the past decade have changed our collective thinking about fat and sugar.  Fat is not as bad as previously thought, and sugar could be much worse — a recent report revealed that the sugar industry paid Harvard University scientists to skew a 1967 study examining the link between sugar and heart disease, the New York Times reported. 

"For most people, I think ["healthy"] falls into that category where it's hard to define, but easy to recognize," David L. Katz, founding director of Yale University's Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, said in an email. Katz has worked for years to find an objective definition, and his work points "to minimally processed foods with a high ration of nutrients we need (that benefit us), compared to those we don't need or [could] harm us," he said. 

But not everyone agrees. Online comments regarding the call for public opinion show that the word "healthy" means different things to different people. 


Healthy should be good for health, Katz said. But what is "health"? 

According to Katz, health comes down to something "related to vitality, longevity and/or risk of disease." But health is also bounded by culture and epidemiology, he noted. 

Veggies and fruits are king in the U.S., Katz said, but in certain sub-Saharan countries in Africa where children are starving and prone to protein deficiencies, "meat or some other concentrated protein source would more directly meet the immediate need, and thus better qualify as 'healthy under the circumstances."

Americans could be left waiting for a new definition — Kotwicki said the process depends on many factors and it's too early "to identify when a new final definition" will go into effect. 

In the meantime, shoppers should remember that fruits and veggies, some of the healthiest foods a person can buy, don't carry labels that proclaim their healthfulness.  

Are marketing words like "healthy" enough to change Americans' waistlines? "Of course it's not enough," Katz said. "But the FDA can play its part ... every little bit helps."