In September 2022, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a proposed rule to update the definition of the nutrient content claim “healthy.” Changes to this definition would shift which foods can voluntarily be labeled as healthy, in accordance with the FDA’s chosen parameters for assessing the product’s fat, vitamin and nutrient profile, protein, and fiber content. While the goal for this proposed rule purports to be to help consumers “build a diet consistent with current dietary recommendations can qualify to bear the claim,” PBFA asserts that the proposed rule actually is in conflict with the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines (DGA) and nutritional science that supports increased consumption of plant-based foods, and may hinder innovation in the plant-based foods industry. 

In a comment submitted on behalf of PBFA members, PBFA’s Vice President of Policy and Food Systems Nicole Negowetti states: “Rather than encouraging consumption of plant-based foods, the Proposed Rule does just the opposite: it unfairly disadvantages plant-based foods by allowing them to be labeled as ‘healthy’ under a narrower range of circumstances than their animal-based counterparts.”

The Proposed Rule Disadvantages Plant-Based Foods

The proposed rule would only allow plant-based foods to be labeled “healthy” if–among other conditions–they contain no more than 5% of the daily value of saturated fat and they contain 0 grams of added sugar. The FDA justifies these restrictions on the basis that “certain plant-based foods are just inherently low in saturated fat and added sugar.” However, animal-based foods are granted an exception to these narrow limitations and allowed double the daily value of saturated fat and as much as 2.5 grams (5% daily value) of added sugars–because these foods might be excluded from “healthy” labeling otherwise. For context, soybeans contain 5 grams of saturated fat per cup and, as such, without the same saturated fat allowance, certain soy products would not be permitted to be labeled as “healthy.” 

As the comment expands upon, there is no need for the FDA to encourage greater consumption of animal-based foods by facilitating their use of the “healthy” label. The DGA finds that adolescents and adults meet or exceed recommended intakes for meat, poultry and eggs, but do not meet recommendations for plant-based foods. 

Part of the reason the FDA proposed an increased fat and sugar allowance for animal-based foods is because these foods “contain important nutrients.” A few examples include vitamin D, calcium, EPA and DHA, as well as choline, all of which can be derived from plant-based food sources or via fortification. As Negowetti outlines, “The Proposed Rule uses Vitamin D as an example of an important nutrient allegedly needed to be consumed from dairy products. Yet, Vitamin D is not even a naturally-occurring nutrient in milk; it needs to be added.”

Further, plant-based foods have a healthier fat profile overall, with no cholesterol and a higher proportion of unsaturated fatty acids. Plant-based foods also have other beneficial nutrients that are lacking in animal-based foods such as fiber and phytonutrients. Considering more than 90 percent of women and 97 percent of men do not meet recommended intakes for dietary fiber, the FDA should consider how their definition of healthy may skew consumers away from plant-based fiber sources and toward more animal-based foods that perpetuate negative health outcomes. 

As the comment states, “Dietary fiber intake is associated with reduced risk of coronary heart disease, as well as supporting bowel health. Fiber is only found in plant-based foods, and is not present in animal-based foods. As noted in the DGA, shifts are needed within the protein foods subgroups (p. 34). Replacing meats with vegetable-based proteins would ensure adequate protein intake while also increasing fiber intake.”

Calculations of Food Group Equivalents Discourages Innovation

Additionally, there are serious ramifications around innovation potential due to the proposed rule’s inflexible calculation of food group equivalents. It allows for certain dehydrated foods and not others to meet food group requirements and fails to include all the plant-based sources for protein food products. By narrowing the definition of a plant-based food product to it’s associated vegetable or fruit source, as in the case of extracted bean proteins or nut milks, there is zero allowance for added sugars or increased fat profiles – causing these foods to not qualify as healthy even though all its components are derived from plant-based sources. If this sort of logic is applied to plant-based foods it would reason that animal-based foods should follow, but the FDA gives a pass to milk and grain products that have higher “naturally occurring” sugar contents than it does to plant-based foods that include added sugars but a lower overall sugar content. The comment gives the example of milk, which contains 12 grams of sugar per cup. According to the proposed rule, the natural sugars in milk are treated the same as the sugar in fruit products, but when natural sugars derived from fruit are added to plant-based milks –with lower sugar values per cup– these foods fall out of the definition of healthy. 

The importance of plant-based foods to enable long-term change

As Negowetti states in the comment’s conclusion, this proposed rule stands to limit food innovation at a time when we need it most. Producing plant-based foods generates half the greenhouse gas emissions of animal-based foods, and requires significantly less land and water resources to produce high-quality, nutritious foods. Plant-based foods and diets have been linked to lower rates of chronic disease and shifting toward plant-based diets can also re-allocate crops and arable land to feed people instead of livestock, alleviating growing resource inequities.

It is essential that the FDA implement rules and standards that encourage Americans to consume more plant-based foods and limit their intake of animal products, for the sake of human and planetary health. However, as it stands, the proposed narrow and misguided definition of “healthy” creates further complications and barriers to achieving the goals of improved nutrition and sustainability for Americans.

Read the full comment here.