A New FDA Symbol May Be Coming To Food Packaging

The FDA announced this week it has begun focus group research to create a front-of-the-box symbol for foods it recommends as "healthy." Food Dive reported that the organization is currently beginning two separate studies, one to choose a logo for the information, and a second, larger focus group to determine people's "reactions and understanding" of what the healthy symbol would actually mean.

According to Health Affairs, regulations around using the term "healthy" on food labels were first introduced in the early '90s, preventing foods with "more than a certain amount of fat or sodium" from advertising themselves as such. However, this has come under scrutiny in the past few years, as the guidelines allowed for many low-fat but high in sugar products to be labeled "healthy" while foods like nuts and salmon were not.

NPR reported on a public conflict over the issue with the makers of KIND Bars in 2015, when the brand argued the FDA's standards did not match the more regularly updated, government-issued Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In 2017, Today's Dietitian shared the organization released new guidance allowing for more flexibility in what foods could be labeled healthy, writing "in certain circumstances, FDA intends not to enforce the labeling requirements ... while we work on revising the definition."

This new FDA announcement could represent a big step forward for clearer food labeling.

What's in a label?

Food packaging has been proven to influence people's buying habits. According to an FDA survey from 2014, 77% of adults consult food labels when shopping, and nearly 90% consider health claims made by the companies. Unfortunately, this can lead to poor choices if the claims are not particularly accurate. The FDA's move to clearly label foods as healthy is, according to the organization's website, part of a strategy to "encourage the development of healthier foods by the industry" and help people in the U.S. make decisions more "easily and quickly."

According to Food Navigator, a 2020 study showed an increase within a specific food category — i.e. breakfast cereals — to include more front-of-the-package labeling can push the whole category to improve nutritional content, with an overall reduction in calories, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar. While a promising development, Food Dive notes that about 90% of people are still confused by food packaging and have trouble figuring out which claims actually indicate the healthiest choices, according to a study done by research platform Attest. The same study said that over 50% of respondents said they would appreciate "clear nutrition labeling on the front of products."

With these new studies underway, it seems the FDA is attempting to resolve some of these issues so consumers can more easily make informed dietary choices.