In debate over new “healthy” food labeling rules, researchers propose novel metric to guide consumers

By Shannon Kelleher

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should redefine how it measures “healthy” food as it sets new rules governing the claims manufacturers make on product labels, a nonprofit research group asserts.

The Heartland Health Research Alliance (HHRA), an organization that studies the health effects of food and farming, recently submitted comments to the FDA calling on the agency to adopt a metric HHRA has developed that conveys a food’s healthiness in a single, color-coded number. This metric, called “NuCal,” aims to capture the relationship between a food’s essential nutrients and its caloric content, according to HHRA.

“There are a lot of people whose daily diet is grossly deficient in multiple essential nutrients despite the fact that they think they’re buying perfectly healthy food because a lot of it’s packaged as healthy for you,” said Charles Benbrook, an agricultural economist and policy expert who serves as executive director of HHRA. Benbrook said NuCal could help consumers make purchasing choices that lower their risk for obesity, diabetes, and other diseases.

The scoring system focuses on the essential nutrition value found in individual foods rather than food groups.

“What we wanted to do was to try to lay out… a system that has a much greater chance of delivering to consumers [a clear and compelling] message about what’s healthier and what’s not,” he said.

The HHRA proposal comes in response to a plan by the FDA to revise the rules that define food products that can be labeled as “healthy.” Products labeled “healthy” would need to meet certain food group benchmarks recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Food products would also need to follow limits for saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.

If the FDA’s proposed definition is adopted, water, avocados, nuts and seeds, certain oils, and fatty fish such as salmon would qualify for labels bearing the “healthy” claim. White bread and highly sweetened yogurts and cereals, which qualify as “healthy” now, no longer would.

The FDA says it will thoroughly review comments before announcing a finalized definition.