The dictionary definition of healthy is clear: Something that's healthy helps bring about good health. What's not as clear is the use of the term when it's applied to processed foods. "Healthy" is a marketing term that can used on some products, and for the first time in 20 years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is re-evaluating which products will be allowed to put that word on their labels.

The organization is asking for the public's opinion on the issue before it comes to any decisions.

In part, the FDA's actions are a result of a citizen petition asking the agency to update the regulation so "it's more consistent with current nutrition science and prizes nutrient-dense foods," according to a press release sent out by KIND, a company that makes bars and snacks with whole nuts and grains. At the moment, foods like avocados, salmon and nuts cannot be labeled as healthy but "fat-free chocolate pudding, some sugary cereals and low-fat toaster pastries can carry the healthy designation," KIND argued.

The FDA sent a letter to KIND in 2015, telling the company that it violated federal rules when it used "healthy" on its packages, according to Politico. KIND explained to the FDA why its nut-heavy bars should be allowed to use the term healthy, and the agency decided to allow the company to use it.

This exchange between KIND and the FDA got some government wheels turning about the outdated regulations on the use of "healthy" as a marketing term. The 20-year-old regulations were written when fat was considered the big evil and sugar wasn't considered a problem. Current science shows that's not accurate. About 50 years ago, the sugar industry paid scientists "to downplay the link between sugar and heart disease and shift the blame to saturated fat."

Now that there's more accurate scientific information about nutrition, the FDA will re-evaluate the marketing term healthy, and it will start the process with public comments, allowing individuals and businesses to share their thoughts on the issue. KIND is one of the companies that will definitely be weighing in.

"We're encouraged by the speed of progress within the FDA and see this as a notable milestone in our country's journey to redefine healthy," said KIND's CEO and founder, Daniel Lubetzky. "The FDA has posed a number of important questions for comment, and in our continued efforts to advocate for public health, we're actively convening experts to help provide answers grounded in current nutrition science."

Food for thought

Man shopping for food Perhaps we should base what's healthy on actual nutrition information. (Photo: antoniodiaz/Shutterstock)

If you want to share your opinion with the FDA, you can do so here. These questions are worth considering:

  • What's your understanding of the meaning of the term "healthy" as it relates to food?
  • What are your expectation of foods that carry a "healthy" claim?
  • What types of foods, if any, should be allowed to bear the term "healthy?"

That last question certainly needs to be addressed. We discover new things about nutrition all the time. If the FDA redefined "healthy" as a marketing term based on today's science, would it need to do so again in five years? Our understanding of nutrition changes, which means that "healthy" as a marketing term doesn't mean much and is probably more confusing than helpful.

Maybe we shouldn't use "healthy" as a marketing term at all. Maybe the FDA and consumers should base what's healthy on actual nutrition information, not on what food companies want to market as healthy.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.