What Does "Heart Healthy" Actually Mean?
You’ve probably seen the term “Healthy” placed on boxes of cereal, frozen meals, and
other grocery store items. What does it actually mean for something to be “healthy” and who decides if something is healthy for us or not?
In the United States the Food and Drug Administration, FDA, regulates nutrition labels
and specific terms that can be placed on food. These terms include things like “fresh”, “fat-free”, and “natural”. The current requirement for “healthy” to be on food packaging includes “limits for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium… and to qualify, foods must also provide at least 10% of the Daily Value (DV) for one or more of the following nutrients: vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein, and fiber.” Let’s break down what that definition does and does not mean.
Per the FDA regulation listed above, a “healthy” label means the food inside the
packaging meets all those requirements. Many foods that are better eaten in moderation like ultra-processed foods often cannot be mislabeled as “healthy” because they don’t meet the requirements. This is important to avoid corporations misleading consumers with labeling. This label does provide a broad categorization of the food being labeled.
A “healthy” label does not mean this is the only healthy food and it doesn’t mean a food
is unhealthy if it doesn’t bear a label to say so. A variety of nutritious foods are not often
labeled as healthy such as most fruits, vegetables, seafood, and bottles of unsaturated oils. The term “healthy” also does not determine the serving size of the food. This means a label may be read something like the following: A serving size is 1/8 cup meaning 1/8 cup of this food has 16% of the daily value for vitamin C and 230 mg of sodium. However, if a consumer reads this label but then eats one whole cup of the food, it’s important to know that the amount of sodium consumed was 1840mg, 8 times the amount on the food label. This is one way consumers may still be misled by labels on food packages. The term currently does not regulate sugar content in the food being labeled and sugar is another important consideration when choosing what to eat. Lastly, the regulations in place do not tailor to individuals, especially those with specific diseases like IBS, diabetes, or heart disease.
As research about our bodies and the foods we eat continues, regulations often change.
The FDA has recently (September 2022) proposed some changes to the requirements for this label. Foods that cannot currently be labeled as “healthy” but could with this policy change include olive oil, eggs, and salmon. Regulations are an important part of food safety, but they can be confusing to follow. If you have questions or are looking for guidance about your diet, seeking help from a registered dietitian will provide personal recommendations.