The What to Know About the FDA’s New Nutrition Label Rules
A big change is coming to how foods are labeled in the US. The Food and Drug Administration has proposed stricter limits on what can be advertised as healthy food limits that are set to exclude many products that meet the previous criteria. But what are these new standards and how might the labeling update affect some of your favorite foods?
The meat and potatoes of the new FDA labeling rules
In September 2022, the FDA unveiled proposed changes to its product labeling to label a food as healthy. Under the new rules, a food can only carry the claim of being healthy if it meets two criteria.
The first is that it should contain most of the food groups recommended by the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, such as dairy, fruit, and whole grains. Second, the product may only contain a certain amount of these specific nutrients: saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.
In some ways, the new definition will expand the list of things that can be called healthy. Water, avocados, and high-fat fish like salmon are all products that don’t currently meet labeling requirements but will be under the new ones, according to the FDA. In general, raw whole fruits and vegetables will also automatically be considered healthy. At the same time, many other healthy products currently manufactured, including white bread and highly sweetened cereals and yogurt, will no longer meet this standard.
For example, a healthy serving of cereal should contain 0.75 ounces of whole grains and no more than 1 gram of saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium, and 2.5 grams of added sugars.
Cereal and cereal makers in particular are angered by the realization that many of their products, including popular brands like Raisin Bran, will now be too high in sugar to warrant claims. According to a recent report by STAT News, the FDA has many frozen and packaged food and even pickle companies calling for stricter limits on sugar and sodium.
In their comments to the press or to the FDA, after a federal agency announces a new rule change process, these companies have taken different approaches to opposing the change. Some say that foods in the healthy food groups should be given more leeway in having these other nutrients; Others also claimed that their products would alienate consumers if they had to change their formula to meet the new criteria; still, others have debated linking added sugar to poor health by tying the overall science that seems pretty solid.
Conversely, consumer and health advocacy groups such as the American Heart Association have widely praised the new rules, according to STAT News, and others such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest have urged the FDA to go further with its labeling changes.
What will the nutrition label change mean for me?
This is all about voluntary labels. If companies want to call their food healthy, they will have to meet the final version of this new standard, whatever it is. But they can still sell their products, without the healthy label, if they don’t want to make any changes at all.
Compared to other countries, the US is still taking a more hands-off approach. Countries like Chile, Ecuador, and Mexico have all implemented front-of-package warning labels on foods deemed high in sodium, sugar, and saturated fat, and more are joining them. The World Health Organization has endorsed these labels, citing evidence that they can actually make people less likely to consume these products and/or change the way companies structure them.
But the FDA’s rule changes could still cause a noticeable ripple across the food industry. According to the organization’s estimates, about 5% of packaged foods are called healthy today, and they expect that only 4% may still carry that label when updated. Some companies may try to debut new or tweaked products that meet these standards, while others may try to adopt new marketing strategies that simply imply their foods are healthier without directly saying so, which would likely meet with resistance from public health groups. The FDA is starting research this year that checks color-coded labels to see if products contain too much sugar, sodium, or saturated fat, so the label wars aren’t over.
The FDA has extended the public comment period on the proposed new rule until mid-February of this year, so its final decision is still some time away. Last December, the agency also said that any food labeling regulations adopted over the next two years would not be implemented until 2026.
But while the debate over what makes particular foods healthy may rage on for years, one thing is clear: The average American is not eating healthily overall. According to the FDA, about 75% of Americans don’t get enough vegetables, fruits, and dairy, and about 60% to 90% get too much sugar, sodium, and saturated fat.