Health and Science

FDA to consider what 'healthy' means and other claims food companies can make

Key Points
  • The Food and Drug Administration wants to use nutrition to cut obesity rates and ultimately reduce the prevalence of chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
  • FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb unveils the plan at the National Food Policy Conference.
  • The FDA will build on Obama-era regulations. It includes updating the health claims food manufacturers can make.
Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, speaking at the CNBC Healthy Returns Conference in New York on March 28th, 2018.
David A. Grogan | CNBC

The Food and Drug Administration wants to make it easier for consumers to know whether the food they're eating is good for them and encourage companies to make products that are more nutritious.

The agency plans to explore what it means for food products to be considered healthy and may create an icon or symbol to label those that meet the possible new definition, Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced Thursday in a speech at the National Food Policy Conference.

In addition to implementing, Obama-era updates to nutrition labels, the FDA will also consider what health claims food products can make and how manufacturers can list ingredients. It also may make definitions of some foods more flexible and may reduce sodium.

The comprehensive, multiyear plan aims to cut obesity rates and ultimately reduce the prevalence of chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease. It builds on Obama-era policies, despite initial concerns from nutrition advocates that the Trump administration would roll back regulations or scrap them altogether.

Gottlieb compared the initiative to the agency's overhaul of tobacco policy, which includes lowering the amount of nicotine in cigarettes to minimal or nonaddictive levels while trying to switch adult smokers to potentially less-risky nicotine alternatives like e-cigarettes.

"Improving the nutrition and diet of Americans would be another transformative effort toward reducing the burden of many chronic diseases, ranging from diabetes to cancer to heart disease," Gottlieb said hi his prepared remarks. "The public health gains of such efforts would almost certainly dwarf any single medical innovation or intervention we could discover."

Gottlieb applauded food companies for developing products that fulfill consumers' demands for healthier foods and cleaner labels. However, he said the FDA can spark even more innovation if it allows manufacturers to tout what makes their products better.

The FDA wants input on the word "healthy," including what it means and whether consumers would benefit from creating an icon or symbol to display on food products that meet the definition. It's also considering "natural," a controversial word Gottlieb said the agency will have more to say on soon.

The agency is also exploring whether it should go beyond promoting specific nutrients to include food groups Americans tend not to eat enough of, such as whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits and vegetables and healthy oils.

"Traditionally, we've focused primarily on the nutrients contained in food in considering what is healthy. But people eat foods, not nutrients," Gottlieb said.

The FDA will streamline its process for reviewing qualified health claims it receives from the industry to prioritize the ones that are based on the strongest science and could have great effect on public health. One example Gottlieb cited is allowing manufacturers to say introducing some infants to peanuts early on is linked to a reduced risk of them developing a peanut allergy.

At the same time, the FDA will consider whether it can make labeling nutrients more consumer-friendly. One request it has received and is actively considering is whether to allow using alternative names for potassium chloride to make clear it's a salt, Gottlieb said.

The FDA will also explore updating standards of identity, which are essentially requirements for what can or can't be in certain products in order for them to be labeled accordingly. For instance, some cheeses aren't allowed to use salt alternatives that would lower the sodium content and still call themselves cheese.

"Our priority, again, is public health, and flexibility is key," Gottlieb said. "We want to maintain the basic nature and nutritional integrity of products while allowing industry flexibility for innovation."

In September, the FDA said it would postpone the deadline to update nutrition labels by two years for large manufacturers, to 2020 instead of 2018. It has upheld requiring some restaurant chains to add calorie counts starting May 7, 2018, though it has proposed offering flexibility on how to provide the information than what was originally given.

Gottlieb said Thursday the agency will finalize its guidance soon.

The agency may also tweak recommendations the Obama administration made in 2016 for food manufacturers to voluntarily reduce the amount of sodium in products. It plans to update the short-term targets next year and continue the dialogue on longer-term reduction efforts, Gottlieb said.

One problem he sees and wants to fix is not everyone is enjoying improvements in how food products are made and labeled.

"There shouldn't be one set of food choices for the affluent, and another for lower-income and working-class families," Gottlieb said. "The genius of American innovation — and the market — can help solve these problems."

The agency will open a docket and hold a public meeting this summer on the proposals.