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A collage of images depicting diverse people in a grocery store, reading food labels.

By: Susan Mayne, Ph.D., Director, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition

March is National Nutrition Month, and the US Food and Drug Administration highlights the importance of good nutrition and the great impact it has in improving people’s lives and reducing the enormous costs of disease chronic diet-related Each year, more than one million Americans die from diet-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. In 2020 alone, an estimated 800,000 people died from cardiovascular disease, an even higher number than the horrific toll from COVID-19 during that same year. And obesity, which is both a disease and a condition that increases the risk of other diet-related chronic diseases, has risen to historic levels in children and adults during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo by Susan T. Mayne, Ph.D.
Susan T. Mayne, Ph.D.

The FDA is also aware that racial and ethnic minority groups, as well as those living in lower socioeconomic status, are disproportionately affected by diet-related chronic diseases. For example, more than 4 in 10 American adults have high blood pressure, but that number rises to about 6 in 10 for non-Hispanic black adults. Additionally, American Indians and Alaska Natives are diagnosed with diabetes, primarily type 2, at higher rates than other racial and ethnic groups.

Improving nutrition can turn the tide on the unacceptably high rates of diet-related illness and death in the US, saving lives, improving quality of life, and lowering health care costs. We recommend that consumers eat more fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, and healthy oils. They should also consume less sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars. To help consumers make better food choices, the FDA is stepping up its broader nutrition education and food labeling efforts. We are also redoubling our work on a healthier food supply, working with key partners and stakeholders to improve the food environment so consumers have more healthy food choices.

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Sodium Reduction Goals and Food Labeling

The FDA took a big step to support a healthier food supply in October 2021 when we set voluntary short-term sodium reduction goals for commercially prepared, packaged, and processed foods. Consumers often consume much more sodium than is healthy, and excess sodium intake is directly linked to high blood pressure, a leading risk factor for heart attacks and strokes. Most sodium comes from processed, packaged, and prepared foods, and encouraging sodium reduction in the food supply will make it easier for consumers to access low-sodium options. The FDA is also looking at our standards of identity, which are like recipes with criteria certain foods must meet, to see what changes could lead to a healthier food supply.

Food labeling is another tool in the agency’s toolbox that we are employing to create a healthier food supply and empower consumers with information. After the FDA required that trans fats be declared on the Nutrition Facts label, there was an 80% reduction in trans fat in the food supply. Experts have said that this led to the prevention of tens of thousands of cases of cardiovascular disease and saved numerous lives. This powerful example underscores the impact of food labeling and how it can lead to huge public health benefits. The agency has updated the Nutrition Facts label requirements to be more consistent with current nutritional advice. For example, one change that was made requires companies to declare added sugars, which we believe will encourage some companies to reformulate existing food products or create healthier ones. We also now require calories to be listed on certain menus and menu boards to help consumers know what they are consuming away from home.

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Our immediate priority in labeling is to make it easier for consumers to identify foods that are part of a healthy eating pattern. The FDA has several initiatives underway to do this. We’re updating the nutrient content claim definition for when “healthy” can be used on a food package. The science of nutrition has evolved since we first established the claim in the early 1990s. In addition to helping consumers better identify foods that help them develop a healthy dietary pattern, the updated definition could also provide an incentive for the industry to reformulate so that its products can carry the “healthy” claim.

The FDA is also conducting a consumer investigation into a possible “healthy” symbol that would act as a quick signal to busy consumers. Additionally, we are working on draft guidance on dietary guidance claims, for example, whole grain claims on a product. The guide will provide best practices for the use of such claims on food labels to describe the role that a food or food group plays in a nutritional dietary pattern.

Healthier diets for young children and how to tackle toxic elements

The FDA is expanding its work to help establish the healthiest diets for young children. Focusing on younger populations is critical because healthy dietary patterns in early life can influence the trajectory of eating habits and health behaviors throughout life. We are taking a holistic approach that encompasses some of our work to reduce toxic elements in foods for babies and toddlers that is set out in our Closer to Zero Action Plan.

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Addressing toxicants and nutrition together in young children is of great value because many foods that can be high in toxicants, such as fruits and vegetables, are also the foundation of lifelong healthy eating patterns. We can do a lot to mitigate exposure to these elements, as close to zero as possible, for example by setting action levels. We intend to publish guidance documents this year on action levels in foods commonly consumed by infants and young children.

We also publish, in coordination with the US Environmental Protection Agency, updated advice to help people who may become pregnant, are pregnant or breastfeeding, and parents and caregivers who feed children, make informed decisions about fish that is nutritious and safe to eat. Shellfish provide beneficial fatty acids and other nutrients that can help children grow and develop. The FDA continues to develop a variety of educational materials to enhance the ability of consumers to be aware of the advice and encourage the consumption of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.

This is just a snapshot of our nutrition work. The FDA continues to work with our federal partners to create a healthier food supply, empower consumers to make healthier diet choices, and establish healthy eating habits early on. We are excited about the work we are doing now and the future opportunities to help turn the tide on diet-related chronic disease and improve health equity.