ACHIVED: Food. What is it?

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FOOD. Photo by Leonie Elizabeth. 03 February 2018.

What is Food?

Food is such an important part of all our daily lives that one would think there would be a universally accepted simple definition. When I went hunting for one, I found that there was no clear definition.

Medically defined, food is described as ‘a nourishing substance that is eaten or otherwise taken into the body to sustain life, provide energy, or promote growth’ (1). Legal definitions in food regulations on supply have a broader sweep effectively describing food as ‘anything that is intended or offered for human consumption’ (2) which can include animals and plants, prepared or partly prepared; ingredients; additives; anything used in its preparation; anything that comes in contact with that substance, such as processing aids; or chewing gum (3-5).

Thus, by definition, although food is whatever we eat from a consumption perspective, not everything we eat is food (6) from a nutritional viewpoint. The main difference is that some components of food, as well as some substances available to be added to food for consumption, are not nutritionally required.

These days we have access to an extensive range of food-stuffs, which provides us an array of different choices in flavours, textures and colours. This enhances the pleasure of our daily diets and of our social interactions. As well as natural sources, foods now come in convenient forms, readily prepared or from take-away food outlets. These are cheap and readily available. This allows us to lead busy lives of our own choosing, not chained to the pasture or the kitchen of days gone by. Variety is also important from a nutritional perspective as it has reduced our risk of nutrient inadequacy. Indeed variety is recommended for optimal nutrition. However, we must not lose track of the fact that much of the current variety on our supermarket shelves is to feed our social interactions or for convenience and is not for our nutritional needs.

I believe it is time to re-prioritise.

Nutritional Priorities in Diet Guidelines

Government dietary guidelines aim to translate what we need nutritionally from that available to us. In the Australian Dietary Guidelines food is not specifically defined (7). To wean out foods for optimal health from the vast array on the supermarket shelves, food is qualified by adjectives with terms such as whole foods, nutritious foods and discretionary foods (8, 9).

I am a keen supporter of our dietary guidelines that emphasises a food-based approach to diet. However, there can be difficulties in application of some parts of the guidelines, as there is no clear reference to the processing effects on foods. Although a separation is made of nutritious foods from discretionary foods, the distinction is made on the basis of nutrients. Thus some nutrients such as calcium, iron and protein are revered within nutritious foods; whereas others such as saturated fat, sugar and salt somewhat vilified within discretionary foods. Although there is ample evidence to support that reasoning, processing of foods can lead to confusion for the food choices made by individuals.

Why the confusion?

Here is why I believe there is confusion.

Firstly, food processing can lead to products with enhanced flavours, enticing us to have more – regardless of whether we know them to be healthy or unhealthy. We eat them because we want them and not necessarily because we need them.

Secondly, refinement, extraction and concentration of foods produces a product higher in kilojoules (calories) or energy density than the original food no matter what the original source. Whether the base of the original food is from a plant or animal; the density will rise with many types of processing. Thus crisps made from potatoes, energy bars from cereals, cheese from milk, dried fruit from whole fruit, jams from fruit, dried meats from fresh meat, butter from milk, and nut butters from whole nuts; will result in products higher in energy density than the original food. In ready-to-eat forms without the need of further preparation, they become easy to over-consume. Such refinement of foods has increased over the past century. It has been reasoned foods higher in energy density, availability and convenience is contributing to a rise in global obesity (10).

Thirdly, foods of the same type can be classed as both nutritious and discretionary. This can occur when a food is high in both favourable and unfavourable nutrients.
An example are some breakfast cereals which can be seen as nutritious if high in fibre, and yet may also be high in sugar, and thus be classed as discretionary. A food such as yoghurt is in the nutritious milk group, yet is discretionary if high in sugar or high in saturated fat. Chicken nuggets or fish cakes are high in protein and nutritious, yet are high in fat and salt. It can become confusing, without scrutinising food labels, to understand if these foods are favourable for health or not, and yet food labels can in themselves be confusing.

Fourthly, foods that bear no resemblance to an original food, due to being ultra-processed, can be given a halo effect by the addition of revered nutrients or by the absence of those that bear risk. Examples include energy bars high in protein; or snack-foods low in sugar or fat. Foods do not become super-foods simply by being high in protein or low in fat or sugar. People can become tempted to overconsume foods due to the health claims on the packets, as those claims give the impression of being healthy, and thus can be consumed in any amount.

Focussing on nutrients or looking at foods or food groups strictly by their nutritional make-up and not addressing food processing effects is causing a degree of confusion in people’s choice of foods.

Classifying foods in a different manner may be preferential.

In the coming months, I will explain different types of food classifications expand on  reasons why I believe we need to –

  • return to eating core foods
  • move away from a nutrient focus on our diets to a food focus
  • classifying added fats, oils, sugar and flour as ingredients, not core foods
  • stop raising any nutrient to super-nutrient status
  • stop vilifying nutrients
  • understand the way the proliferation of food products and food formulations has confused the messages on nutrition
  • understand what is behind the health claims we believe

To be continued …

Disclaimer: Nothing in this article or on this website should be taken as medical or dietary advice. Anyone reading any information provided within should seek advice from their own medical practitioner for any issue, disease, illness or health-related problem they may have. Always seek your own advice from a medical practitioner or dietitian before changing your own diet.



1. Food. Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health. Seventh ed: Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier Inc.; 2003.
2. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand. Standard 1.1.2 – Definitions used throughout the Code -“Food” 2017 [updated 08 September; cited 2018 07 January ]. Available from:
3. Tasmanian Government. Food Act 2003. 2015.
4. Food Standards Australia New Zealand is the statutory authority that develops standards on what is allowed in foods in Australia, as well as requirements for labelling and processing standards. .
5. Compliance with the Food Standards Code is monitored by state authorities under various legislations. In Tasmania, the definition of food is within the Food Act 2003.3. Tasmanian Government. .
6. Fox BA, Cameron AG. Food Science, Nutrition and Health. London: Hodder & Stoughton; 1989.
7. National Health and Medical Research Council. Eat For Health: Australian Dietary Guidelines Summary. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council, 2013.
8. National Health and Medical Research Council. Eat For Health. Australian Dietary Guidelines. Providing the Scientific Evidence for Healthier Australian Diets. 2013.
9. National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Dietary Guidelines. Glossary.
Whole foods are defined as ‘foods themselves for example fruit, vegetables, bread, pasta, lean meat, milk, yoghurt and not the food component for example calcium, iron, protein’.
Nutritious foods are that which ‘make a substantial contribution to a range of nutrients, have an appropriate nutrient density, and are compatible with the overall aims of these guidelines’ and listed as fruit; grain and cereals; meat, fish, poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds; milk and alternatives.
Discretionary foods are ‘foods and drinks not necessary to provide the nutrients the body needs, but may add variety’ and are described as those high in saturated fat, sugar, salt and alcohol; such as many biscuits, cakes, pastries, pies, processed meats, commercial burgers, pizza, fried foods, potato chips, crisps, and other savoury snacks.
10. Hall KD. Did the Food Environment Cause the Obesity Epidemic? Obesity. 2018;26(1):11-3.

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