What could FDA plans to redefine 'healthy food' mean for dining outlets?

Image credit:   Africa Studio  (Shutterstock)

Image credit: Africa Studio (Shutterstock)

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Over the past few months, important changes have been occurring in the global food standards sphere, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has begun the process of dramatically re-defining what constitutes ‘healthy’ food. The FDA’s definitions have not been updated since the 1990s, leading to some startling discrepancies where, as the Wall Street Journal suggests, Pop Tarts are categorised as being healthier than almonds. These developments are certainly promising for international public health, but how could they affect the dining industry?

Over the past few decades, dietary recommendations have been evolving at a rapid pace, as scientific research develops and offers new insights into which nutrients benefit or threaten health. In general, healthy dietary patterns now emphasise the importance of balancing food groups, consuming ‘good’ fats rather than eliminating fat altogether, and limiting added sugars in the diet.

However, this has not always been the case. As the Wall Street Journal explains, in the U.S.:

“Food can only be marketed as healthy if it meets five criteria: fat, saturated fat, sodium, cholesterol and beneficial nutrients, such as vitamin C or Calcium. The levels differ by food category, but snacks generally can’t have more than 3 grams of fat. When the term “healthy” was first officially defined in 1994, low fat content was the main focus of health professionals. Sugar wasn’t on the FDA’s, or most nutritionists,’ radar.”

So, the FDA has published a “request for information” requesting input from the public, food industry executives, and specialists in creating a definition of the term ‘healthy’ that applies to all.

As National Public Radio reports, the change comes after energy bar company, Kind, launched a petition to encourage the DFA to update their terms: “The company has used the phrase "healthy and tasty" on some of its products that contain lots of nuts. But, here's the issue: The bars contained too much fat to meet the Food and Drug Administration's strict low-fat definition of healthy.”

NPR also suggest that the changes are likely to address sugar content of food, after evidence has linked excessive sugar intake to obesity and heart disease. They quote Douglas Balentine, who says “Our thinking about sugars has changed, so I would think the amount of sugar in products is something we [will] take into account.”

In a blog post, Balentine says, “We also know that many just don’t have the time to consider the details of nutrition information on every package they purchase. In fact, most purchase decisions are made quickly, within three to five seconds.” Thus, their aim is to create a market where “Companies can use this and other claims on the front of packages of foods that meet certain criteria to help consumers quickly identify nutritious choices.”

What constitutes ‘healthy’ in the UK market?

In the UK, the government’s guidelines to healthy eating differ. Public Health England recommend basing meals on starchy, natural foods, five 80g portions fruit and vegetables daily, two 140g portions of fish per week, one of which is oily, and no more than 70g of red meat per day. Their recommendations suggest eating products high in fat, sugar and salt “in smaller amounts, or eat them less often”. The Food Standards Agency’s nutrient and food based guidelines suggest that fats should comprise no more than 35 per cent of average population food energy, with added sugars taking up no more than 11 per cent of food energy.

How could definitions of ‘healthy’ affect dining outlets?

The changes proposed in the U.S. may not directly affect UK markets, but the international food standards industry undoubtedly reaps transatlantic influence. So how will these developments in the conversation about healthy foods influence the UK dining industry? The primary area of impact is likely to be food packaging, of course, but as we have seen in Britain, with the inclusion of calorie counts on packaging, this quickly spreads to restaurant menus.

The Food Standards Agency’s guidance does take restaurants and food outlets into account. Their criteria assume that breakfast contributes 20 per cent of daily energy and nutrient intake, with lunch and evening meals contributing 30 per cent each. Therefore, savvy restaurant owners can calculate the nutrient content of their dishes against these percentages and include health claims on menus to reflect this.

According to the FDA, “many caterers employ registered nutritionists or dietitians who are able to assess menus against Government recommendations.” They recommend similar forms of assessment against their guidelines for outlets who want to ensure that their menus provide the correct nutrients for the average diner. Therefore, the inclusion of an ‘our nutritionist recommends’ label could be a rising trend on menus that we may see in the future.

It may initially seem that more transparent information about food nutrition could threaten restaurants offering luxury meals, but in reality, it could actually benefit the industry. As consumers learn more about which foods really are healthy through food packaging, they will be empowered to use this knowledge to make informed choices when dining out. This will allow restaurant owners to appeal to healthy-eating foodies by taking extra steps to ensure their dishes are healthy, and then telling customers about their healthy ethos.