by Marion Nestle
Mar 26 2009

What, exactly, is a healthful food?

When it comes to food, defining “healthy” is a major preoccupation of food companies these days.  Marketers are falling all over each other trying to label food products with numbers or symbols to convince you that their products are better-for-you choices.  These, as I keep saying (see posts under “Scoring systems”), are about marketing, not health.

Now, the Strategic Alliance, the component of the Oakland-based Prevention Institute devoted to “promoting healthy food and activity environments,” has produced a working definition of a healthful food.  Its report, Setting the Record Straight: Nutritionists Define Healthful Food, applies three principles:  Healthful food should be (1) wholesome, (2) produced in ways that are good for people, animals, and natural resources, and (3) available, accessible, and affordable.

This is a food system definition that makes scoring systems unnecessary.  “Wholesome,” says this document, means foods that are minimally processed, full of naturally occurring nutrients, produced without added hormones or antibiotics, and processed without artificial colors, flavors, or unnecessary preservatives.

I wonder how many of those highly processed products in supermarket center aisles can meet this definition?

  • http://doesabodygood.blogspot.com Michelle @ What Does Your Body Good?

    I’m sure 9 out of 10 packaged food products will try their hardest to find loopholes and meet those requirements. In my opinion most of those items shouldn’t even be allowed to call themselves “food,” nevermind “healthful food.”

    By the way Marion, I’ve been following you for awhile but am only now reading What To Eat. On page 78 and love it! You write in a way that is accessible and I really appreciate that in this field.

  • http://findyourbalancehealth.com Michelle @ Find Your Balance

    I’m sure 9 out of 10 packaged food products will try their hardest to find loopholes and meet those requirements. In my opinion most of those items shouldn’t even be allowed to call themselves “food,” nevermind “healthful food.”

    By the way Marion, I’ve been following you for awhile but am only now reading What To Eat. On page 78 and love it! You write in a way that is accessible and I really appreciate that in this field.

  • http://meatlessmama.blogspot.com/ Janet

    If it comes in a brightly colored package with a label touting it’s health benefits, you can be pretty sure all the goodness has been processed out of it. Healthy food is instantly recognizable and doesn’t require marketing hype.

  • Jon

    Two words: Organic Coke.

    As Michael Pollan explained in In Defense of Food, there’s a myth that foods can be expressed in terms of the nutrient, that all eating is to maintain health, and that health can be maintained by assiduously avoiding certain nutrients and embracing others.

    But there’s a flaw with this thinking. Take carbohydrates, for instance. I know that if I eat cereal and drink some OJ, the carbs will absorb quickly, I’ll produce more insulin than I need, and within a few hours, I’ll be hungry again; if I don’t eat soon after that, I’ll be irritable and have trouble concentrating, and the more carbs I eat in this manner (and the more calories I eat as carbs), the worse it gets, especially as I gain weight from this addiction. But I can eat other carb-rich foods, such as black beans or apples or potatoes, with no withdrawal to speak of. The funny thing is, if I cook food myself and remember to eat a variety of carbohydrate sources (and remember carbs have calories), I avoid this issue entirely because food processors are always adding more sugar to their food, far beyond anything I would normally add. And it tastes better than cloying-sweet cereal.

  • Jon

    Oh, Dr. Nestle, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something. Now, my family has a history of diabetes. I’m also bipolar. Knowing that my family has a history of diabetes, and that my total cholesterol was low, I went on an HDL-raising diet. (Meaning, don’t worry about saturated fats and cholesterol, but do increase monounsaturated and polyunsaturated intake. Also, completely eliminate soft drinks, and use sugars, juices, and refined grains in moderation, and don’t let carbohydrates equal more than 40% of total calories. But I was eating more produce. I was definitely eating more cholesterol, though, sometimes as much as 800 mg/day. Calories were never my concern; as much as I mention them to anybody on a diet, my basal metabolism is like, 2600 calories.)

    Not even thinking about HDL’s various roles in the bloodstream while doing this (even though I do know them; I am a med student, after all), something amazing happened. First, I was less depressed; if anything I was hyperthymic. Secondly, I was definitely more active, though I didn’t notice it at first. Third, my sex life improved; I never had trouble in that area, but now I was “in attention” when walking through the grocery store. Like when I was 12.

    Now, I know the mechanisms behind all this (HDL delivering more cholesterol to the testes, cholesterol’s effect on the brain), but it might be interesting to get a dietetic consult on this.