The ongoing social construction of what food is labeled healthy

New proposed guidelines from the FDA would change what constitutes health food and what can be marked healthy:

Photo by Ella Olsson on

Under the proposal, manufacturers can label their products “healthy” if they contain a meaningful amount of food from at least one of the food groups or subgroups (such as fruit, vegetable or dairy) recommended by the dietary guidelines. They must also adhere to specific limits for certain nutrients, such as saturated fat, sodium and added sugars. For example, a cereal would need to contain three-quarters of an ounce of whole grains and no more than 1 gram of saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium and 2.5 grams of added sugars per serving for a food manufacturer to use the word “healthy” on the label.

The labels are aimed at helping consumers more easily navigate nutrition labels and make better choices at the grocery store. The proposed rule would align the definition of the “healthy” claim with current nutrition science, the updated Nutrition Facts label and the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the FDA said…

New labeling language is sure to be controversial among food manufacturers that have sought to capitalize on Americans’ interest in more-healthful food…

But what constitutes “healthy” food is a thorny topic among nutrition experts. Would foods high in what many nutrition scientists call “good fats,” such as those that contain almonds or avocados, be deemed “unhealthy,” whereas artificially sweetened fruit snacks or reduced-fat sugary yogurts might be considered “healthy”?

Put together science, business interests, politics, other interested social actors, and the everyday food practices of people in the United States and you have a public conversation slash negotiation over what it means for food to be healthy. This is not a new process – it has been going on for decades – but it has significant ongoing implications.

When talking about graphs and charts, I use the example my Statistics class of the evolution of the image of a healthy diet. Today, this is My Plate which was developed a little more than a decade ago. Prior to that was the food pyramid and there were several other government sponsored graphics before that. Each of them theoretically represent a healthy diet or approach to eating but they emphasize different foods and quantities. They reflect this ongoing social construction of healthy food.

This suggests that what is considered healthy might change within a decade or two after this current round of conversation and guidelines comes to a conclusion. These changes will embody new understandings and social/power dynamics.

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