NCHR Testimony on Use of the Term “Healthy” in Food Labeling

Use of the Term “Healthy” in the Labeling of Human Food Products – FDA Public Meeting

Thank you for this opportunity to speak today.  My name is Samantha Watters and I’m the Director of Communications and Outreach for the National Center for Health Research. Our Center conducts and scrutinizes medical research to determine what is known and not known about specific treatment and prevention strategies. We then translate that complicated information into plain language so that patients, consumers, media, and policy makers will understand it. This work is challenging, but incredibly important given that the level of health and scientific literacy in the general public varies so greatly.

This challenge becomes exceedingly more difficult when you start to use a word like “healthy.” All studies are not created equal, and all health claims are not backed by solid scientific evidence.

Allowing industry to deem a particular food “healthy” based on a limited set of criteria adds to the confusion.  For example, claiming something is “healthy” based on a certain nutrient (for instance fat content or vitamin breakdowns) can be misleading, as there are many foods that might be low in fat but high in processed or added sugars. We don’t want something to be labeled healthy just because it is low in fat and pumped full of vitamin C or other vitamins, if it has other ingredients that are known to be not healthy.  We know that the term “healthy” is a powerful marketing tool, and that can make it very dangerous.

The guidance recommends the use of the term “healthy” with a qualifying statement explaining the distinction (for example, “healthy, contains 3 grams of fat”). All nutrient contents used to substantiate the claim of “healthy” would then need to be clearly defined on the nutrition label. In practice, this will be confusing. The word “healthy” will jump out at people, but reading nutrition labels is a skill that not everyone possesses. Most people don’t even look at food labels, let alone have the health literacy to analyze them in a way that would allow them to make an informed decision about the actual “health” of a particular food choice.

Many people have limited reading skills. That’s why it is important to communicate risk information at the 5th grade or 8th grade level. The FDA has not followed that health literacy standard, but industry knows how to talk to consumers so they will listen. If allowed to make health claims, companies will communicate well in terms of marketing but less well with their actual nutritional information.

FDA needs to do a better job of preventing misleading information and inadequate explanations of risk and benefit in direct-to-consumer ads, whether the information is about a drug or a food.  It is not good enough to require nutritional content on the label– it’s essential to clearly explain why or how a product is or is not “healthy”.   For example, the FTC requires information in ads to be understandable to a typical consumer.  It is not sufficient for information to be precisely accurate – it must be understandable.  People need to be better informed on how to make “healthy” eating choices, and part of the FDA’s responsibility is to not only make the most accurate and up to date evidence readily available and easy to understand, but also to prevent misleading statements.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to share our Center’s views with you today.