Food Labels: What is Healthy?

By: Nikki Sepe on Jun 21, 2016

Have you ever picked up a food item in the grocery store to see the words "healthy" or "healthful" listed in bold letters across the packaging?  As it turns out, the Food and Drug Administration has specific definitions for foods deemed "healthy" and all foods labeled this way must meet their specific requirements depending on the item.  


Food claims take nutritional content into consideration based on the serving size.  Most foods must meet these requirements using a serving size of greater than 30 grams (or 2 tablespoons), while others are in relation to the amount normally consumed in one sitting.


Within fruits, vegetables (raw, frozen or canned) and enriched grain cereals, the content of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium are all compared to serving size to meet the following requirements:

  • LOW FAT: 3 grams or less of total fat per serving
  • LOW SATURATED FAT: 1 gram or less of saturated fat per serving and no more than 15% of calories from saturated fat
  • LOW CHOLESTEROL: 60 mg or less per serving size
  • LOW SODIUM: 480 mg or less per serving



The label "healthy" for seafood is in relation to a 100-gram serving size.  For seafood, that is approximately 5-6 jumbo shrimp or a serving of venison similar to the size of a deck of cards.  

  • FAT CONTENT: less than 5 grams 
  • SATURATED FAT CONTENT: less than 2 grams 
  • CHOLESTEROL: less than 95 mg of cholesterol
  • NUTRIENTS: 10% of the Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) or Daily Reference Value (DRV) of one or more of the following: vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein or fiber. 



The previous claims were to label specific food items with fewer ingredients, but many consumers reach for healthy meals and healthy main dishes and these are also defined differently.  

What constitutes a meal replacement?

A meal product has a much larger serving size than the previous items.  At 10 ounces per serving, a meal product is defined as having at least three 40-gram portions of two or more food groups. 

A main dish product is at least 6 ounces per serving size and at least 40 grams of food from two or more food groups.  This can not be a beverage or dessert.  

These products must meet the nutritional requirements per serving size of:

  • LOW FAT: 3g or less 
  • LOW SATURATED FAT: 2g or less 
  • LOW CHOLESTEROL: 90 mg or less 
  • SODIUM: 600 mg or less 
  • NUTRIENTS: A meal product must contain 10% of RDI or DRV of 3 or more of the following nutrients while a main dish must have at least 2 nutrients meeting the 10% RDI: vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein and fiber


Keep in mind, these foods MUST contain these nutrition guidelines without any special processing to change the nutrient composition.  Fortification is an accepted method of adding proper nutrients in a product to meet the claim of a "healthy" food.  If a food is fortified, it must meet the fortification policy for foods.  

THE IMPORTANCE OF FOOD LABELSFDA_Nutrition_Facts_Label_2014.jpg

Food claims may influence consumers to purchase a product that is labeled "healthy"

so it is important to know the exact reason as to what makes a product healthy. This information can be helpful in fortification and marketing process of launching a new product as well.  

Want to know more about food labeling? Keep an eye on our blog for more articles about specific nutrient claims or you can check out more information in the link below:

FDA Nutrition Labeling