Are sugary cereals healthy food? And the salmon? The US proposes to change the rules for healthy foods

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA for its acronym in English) of the US Government has just proposed a new definition of what is healthy in food. The new meaning will apply to information that appears on nutrition labels for processed foods. To give two examples of what enters and what leaves this definition, from now on salmon and avocados are considered healthy foods, when before they were not due to their high fat content, and cereals with added sugars, that they did consider themselves healthy, they stop considering themselves that way.

In addition, the FDA has announced that it is developing a graphic symbol that manufacturers of processed foods can use to mark their products as healthy when they meet the new requirements set by the Government, and a new nutritional label that must be on the front and not, as is the case now, on the back or side. The White House has announced that the new nutritional system proposed by the FDA will be communicated in food through symbols that are easily identifiable by consumers, such as “a star rating or a traffic light system.”

The new American nutritional information system contemplates two aspects. For one thing, new healthy foods must contain a “significant” amount of nutrients from at least one of the groups or subgroups recommended by the dietary guidelines, such as fruits, vegetables, or dairy. And, in addition, they must comply with the required limits for saturated fats, sodium (salt) and added sugars; therefore, white bread cannot be considered healthy in this new guide either. For the professor of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Navarra, Maira Bes Rastrollo, this update “is a step forward”. “And it is a very favorable point that added sugars have been included, something that Nutri-Score, the system we have in Spain, does not do,” adds Bes Rastrollo, an expert in nutrition epidemiology.

In Spain, and by community regulations, nutritional information is mandatory in processed foods since 2011 and must include the list of ingredients and the nutritional information table. But that same regulation of the European Commission recognized that not all people can understand that label well, so it proposed that, in a complementary and voluntary way, it be accompanied by information on the front of the food product. And that is what Spain has done with the Nutri-Score system in force since 2021 and which is one of those that exist to transfer information on whether a processed food is healthy or not.

Nutri-Score is an algorithm that gives a score to each evaluated product, from 1 to 5. Each score is associated with a color, from dark green to red, and each of these colors with a letter, from A to E. The higher the note, the lower the nutritional value of the product because the algorithm adds points when it contains saturated fats, salt, sugars or more calories, and subtracts points for the percentage of fruits and vegetables, vegetable oils such as olive or soy and the contribution of vitamins and fiber.

Better then Nutri-Score

Another aspect in which the US proposal improves the Nutri-Score, according to Bes Rastrollo, is that the US system takes into account the type of food when establishing nutritional limits: “That is why the Nutri-Score problem arose. -Score with olive oil, which as it is 100% fat, had a very bad score. In the US proposal, the maximum fat limit is a function of the type of food being considered. That allows you to adapt it much better”.

The FDA statement announcing the new meaning of healthy food affects the health effects of those that are not. “More than 80% of people in the United States do not consume enough fruits, vegetables and dairy products. And most of them consume excessive added sugars, saturated fats and sodium. According to the US government’s own data, “Overweight and obesity, which are associated with poor eating and physical activity behaviors, are the leading contributors to chronic disease in the United States. Obesity increases the risk of morbidity from chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and some cancers, and is also associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality.”

According to the data provided by the FDA itself in the presentation of the new healthy label, “in 2019, 42% of adolescents and 39% of adults said they ate fruit less than once a day, while 41% of teens and 21% of adults said they ate vegetables less than once a day. And that is what the American government wants to change. “The step they have taken is positive,” says Bes Rastrollo, “because there is evidence that correct nutritional information helps change purchasing habits, but I think that more than information about what is healthy, consumers need information about what it is not, as they do, for example, the nutritional labels in Chile”. In this country,

The FDA released its first definition of healthy foods in 1994, but dietary guidelines have since changed along with advances in nutritional research. In 2016, the US Food and Drug Administration began the process to update what is considered healthy in food, which is now culminating. But this work had a break, since during the presidency of Donald Trump the committee in charge of setting the country’s food guidelines was prohibited from considering the health effects of red meat, salt and ultra-processed foods. The Joe Biden Administration, on the contrary, reactivated the scientific adequacy of nutritional labels that now reaches American consumers.

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