My Food Is Labeled ‘Healthy’—but Is It Really?

Photo: Stocksy /  Ivan Gener
When you see an item labeled "healthy," you'd imagine it's because it is indeed healthy and good for you. The United States Department of Agriculture published new guidelines this week on what can be labeled healthy in order to align with the FDA's current guidance. But are healthy claims on food labels a good enough reason to add something to your cart? Abbie Gellman, RDN, a chef and registered dietitian nutritionist says not quite.

"There's kind of an overarching issue with the word healthy because general consumers don't understand what that means," says Gellman. "I don't even understand what that means if I don't like look it up." She says you shouldn't blindly follow what's on the packaging.

The regulations from by the USDA and the FDA state that for a food item to bear the label "healthy," or any other derivative of the term, it must have a fat profile makeup of predominantly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats or contain at least 10 percent of the the daily value for potassium or vitamin D.

Food that falls under USDA jurisdiction, primarily meats and poultry products, must now submit label sketches to a labeling committee for approval. The FDA handles the other 77 percent of what we eat, and its "healthy" label guidance is just that—guidance, which it says isn't legally enforceable.

Michelle Zive, PhD, RD, registered dietitian and co-author of course materials for NASM-CNC, says that while the fat profile and potassium and vitamin D content of an item is important, there's a lot more nuance involved in what makes something good for you to eat.

"I would still be very wary about something being called healthy—it doesn't do anyone a service to actually have that on a label," says Zive. "As a consumer, you have to know how to read labels and know what you're putting into your body and not really rely on the FDA or USDA."

The front of the packaging isn't where you're going to get the info that you need. "Companies can put things like organic, and multi-grain, and all these other kind of labels that people look at automatically and think, 'Oh my gosh, it's healthy,' but those don't mean anything," says Zive. "You really have to pay attention to what is on the food ingredient list."

Zive says the shorter the ingredient list the better, and if ingredients like sugar are near the front of an ingredient list, its probably not the healthiest thing you can buy. Gellman says to take things a step further and look for items without a nutrition label. "Choose things that look as close as they can be to nature," she says. So opt for the apple instead of apple juice. "Even if part of your meal is packaged or processed, at least try to have that side of, even if it's a frozen or canned vegetable, try to incorporate stuff that actually looks like it does in nature."

Nutrition labels underwent a revamp earlier this year, here's what changed. And this nutritionist's rule of 5 makes healthy shopping so much easier.

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