Finally, the FDA Will Set Definitions for ‘Healthy’ and ‘Grass-Fed’ Food Labels

Last Update: March 22, 2021

You’ve heard it from us before: when it comes to claims made on the packages of the food we eat, we can’t always believe what we see.

Brands cover the wrappers of their products with claims of health, nutrition, and sustainability, but in many cases, the words are totally empty of meaning. Far too often, the government has virtually zero regulations in place to protect us from such manipulation. The term “natural,” for example, implies healthy and organic, but the government has not defined what it actually means—so food companies can use it anywhere they want, leaving consumers in the dark.

That said, we welcome any good news about labeling that we can get. Like this: Two terms we frequently see on our food labels— “healthy” and “grass-fed”—could be getting some actual meaning behind them.

It all started back in 2015 when the Food and Drug Administration said Kind could not advertise its bars and products as “healthy” because they contained too much saturated fat. Kind fought back, launching a petition to challenge the definition of the word.

You see, when the definition was established, we were in the middle of the low-fat craze—fat, in all forms, was to be avoided at all costs. Science has come a long way since then, and experts now know that it’s the quality—not quantity—of fats that matters. Kind bars, for instance, are high in fat because they contain lots of nuts—now considered to be an important part of a well-rounded, whole foods diet.

Now, the FDA is asking for input from consumers and companies to update the definition of the word. Though there’s no way to know exactly what the new definition will look like, it’s likely that it will limit the amount of sugar in products with the “healthy” label, seeing as how the latest science has established that the sweet stuff is public enemy No. 1.

And it isn’t just the “healthy” label that’s getting a makeover. The government is looking at the term “grass-fed” as well. Eight months after the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Marketing Service set aside the issuing and regulating of the “grass-fed” label, the agency is seeking to define the term more definitively. While the period of comments on the USDA’s guideline is still open, fans of clean food and sustainable agriculture are probably going to like the proposed definition: the agency proposes that “grass-fed” or “100% grass-fed” labels can only apply to “meat and meat product labels derived from cattle that were only (100%) fed grass (forage) after being weaned from their mother’s milk.”

But what’s your best bet in the meantime? The USDA’s “Certified Organic” label is clearly defined, and encompasses best practices in sustainability, animal welfare, and the absence of chemical pesticides. Until the FDA clarifies the definition of “natural,” it’s best to stick to this higher standard.

Photo credit: Alicia Cho

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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