What’s ‘healthy?’ FDA, food companies are in bitter battle

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

Welch’s bottles advertise “100% grape juice,” “USA grown grapes,” “no sugar added,” “non-GMO,” and “100% DV vitamin C” — at a store in San Jose, California. Photo by Shutterstock.

Cruising the supermarket aisles, you can find a lot of food products with the word “healthy” on the label. The Food and Drug Administration is trying to crack down on that and more clearly define what actually is healthy. Food companies are fighting back. 

Currently, the FDA is “exceedingly liberal” in what they allow to appear on the front of food packages, such as gummy bears that are “gluten-free” and “zero fat” (which is technically true), says Laura Reiley, food business reporter for the Washington Post.

She adds, “There's a lot of bait and switch in the food industry. And so the FDA was essentially tasked with rethinking their definition of healthy, and also coming up with some new, more usable, more consumer-friendly front-of-label packaging rules.”

A big trend now pertains to sugar added limits. Two years ago, dietary guidelines for “healthy” food meant no more than 10% of calories could come from added sugars, she says. The FDA wanted this to apply to meals at schools, but nutritionists told Reiley that not enough food companies on the market would adhere to it.  

She explains that the proposed new “healthy” rules say if you have a slightly or moderately processed food — containing fruit, vegetables, meat, nuts, or eggs —  they cannot have added sugars. And for grains, dairy products, and other items, it could contain only 2.5 grams of sugar per serving.

In response, Conagra, which owns Healthy Choice meals, told the FDA that they can’t sell a product that people want to eat with the new proposed limits on added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium. She quotes the company: “If these are the standards we have to adhere to, we may just pivot to things that we know people like, and forget the aspirations towards healthy food.” 

Plus, the Sugar Association, the Dairy Association, Snack International, Campbell's Soup, and more are concerned about the limits. 

To get under the 10% rule, companies will swap out table sugar and instead use low and no-calorie sweeteners, such as Stevia and monk fruit, Reiley predicts. 

“If calories is the main agenda — reducing calories — that will do the trick. But there's such mounting evidence that they may not be neutral … for the gut biome. And clearly, there are several significant studies in the past couple of years … suggesting that for someone who's diabetic, or has any lifestyle-related diseases, your body still responds to fake sugars the way it does with real sugar. … So they may not be better for us.”

There are significant consequences for children too. She explains that the “bliss point” — the maximum saltiness or sweetness people prefer — is twice as high for kids as adults. 

“Kids gravitate towards things that are hyper-sweet. And if what we're doing is … instead putting something like allulose or some of these hyper high-intensity sweeteners, some of these are 20,000 times sweeter than real sugar. So if we're substituting these … maybe they're not as calorically dense, but are we conditioning children to prefer hyper-sweet from a very early age? So the biting into an apple — it doesn't taste sweet at all. So a lot of behavior is learned early in childhood. And I think that this is another opportunity to set in motion unforeseen consequences associated with artificial sweeteners.”

The FDA just finished their comments period for the new rules, and at some point in 2024, they will officially release their new definition of “healthy.”