FOOD – what is it?

Food – Photo by Leonie Elizabeth. 26 July 2020

What is Food?

Food is such an integral part of our daily lives, you would think there would be a short, simple and universally accepted description. Alas, this is not so and there are several and somewhat conflicting definitions. Today there are over 120,000 (1) foods available world-wide and up to 40,000 choices in Australian supermarkets (2). Food-types range from basic food commodities to extractions from foods to products with a multitude of ingredients. This is a brief outline of the various definitions of the different foods and food product types, and descriptions of what is classified as food and what isn’t.


“Food” can be simply described as substances (including drinks) that nourish us, vehicles for nutrients of carbohydrate, fat, protein, vitamins, minerals, and trace elements. Nutrition textbooks define food in this manner, as substances ‘derived from plants or animals that can be taken into the body to yield energy and nutrients for the maintenance of life and the growth and repair of tissues’ (3).

The three important elements therefore that define a food from a nutritional perspective are:
(1) it must contain at least one nutrient
(2) it must perform at least one function of keeping us alive or healthy, and
(3) it is derived from plants or animals – or in some cases fungi or insects.
It follows that no substance can be defined as ‘food’ unless it satisfies those three elements.

Food regulations governing supply and food safety, however, have a broader sweep and describe ‘food’ as ‘anything that is intended or offered for human consumption’ (4), which can include animals, plants, prepared or partly prepared; ingredients; additives; anything used in its preparation; anything coming in contact with that substance, such as processing aids; or chewing gum (5-7). In other words, anything edible.

Therefore, although from a supply perspective, ‘food’ can be any substance that we can consume (all the items on supermarket shelves), not everything we consume as food or within foods is actually ‘food’ (from a nutritional perspective) as some foods, and some substances added to food, provide no nutrients, do not contribute to the primary function of food, or are not derived from plants or animals.

Food Commodities

In the early stages of production foods are referred to as ‘food commodities’. A commodity is an economic term … ‘a basic good … interchangeable with other commodities of the same type’ (8) with the most fundamental aspect of a commodity being that it is sold for a profit. Commodities are interchangeable, and as such they do not include branded manufactured food products (9). Branded products have an added dimension of marketing beyond that of traded commodities (10). Food commodities are available for trade to wholesale food distributors and food manufacturers for use in production of food products. The final foods for sale to consumers include primary food commodities, processed food commodities and branded food products.

Primary food commodities are fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, eggs, raw milk, meats and similar. (11)

All foods other than primary food commodities, are processed foods (‘foods which have undergone some sort of processing which partly changed their nature in relation to their form as fresh foods’) (12) (FAO/WHO GIFT). These are then sub-divided further into-

Secondary commodities (‘the lowest level of processing; includes dried plant and animal origin foods, milled grains and milk that has undergone a simple processing leading to the removal of certain ingredients such as water, milk fat etc’)  (12).

Derived products (‘various intermediate products in the manufacture of edible food products, such as isolated fractions of animal source products [animal fat, milk fractions, etc], and plant origin foods [grain milling fractions, oils, juices, plant butter, molasses] and meat, fish and seafood after simple processing such as boiling, freezing, etc’) (12); and 

Manufactured products (‘multi and single ingredient processed foods which are normally pre-packed and ready for consumption without cooking and which are typically prepared out of derived products of plant or animal origin’)(12). In these products, often the main ingredient is NOT a primary or secondary food commodity but rather a derived product (fats, oils, or sugars) and/or a food fraction (‘bits of food’ derived by complex refining, distillation and purification processes of a derived food product to produce food fragments such as isolated proteins, esterified fats or oils, modified starches or sugars) with the addition of non-food components and food additives (to make the food taste acceptable and to prolong shelf life). The food then undergoes a series of further (sometimes complex) processes to end up with a final branded food-product. These food-products are generally not sold as commodities. Some branded products have only a small portion of base food in intact form in their ingredients (11). Some are not derived or contain no derived products from either a plant or animal eg sugar-free chewing gum, sugar-free ‘diet’ drinks, and food colours for use in baking. However, they are still regarded as foods, from a supply perspective.

Non-food substances

Non-food substances allowed in foods include dough strengtheners, enzymes, food additives, flavouring substances, flavour enhancers, pH control agents, yeast nutrients, gases, biologically active substances, vitamins and minerals, and food fractions such as gluten or dietary fibre. Foods may also contain toxicants or contaminants from food production, processing or packaging, with limits allowed set by government agencies. Non-food substances allowed in Australia and New Zealand are listed in Food Standard Code FSANZ 1.1.2-2 (13).

Tea and coffee are ‘stimulants‘ and not strictly ‘foods’ as they act on the nervous system not the digestive system and provide no nutrients. Alcohol acts as both a food and as a drug. (14)

A ‘condiment‘ is ‘something used to enhance the flavor of food’ (15). Pepper, herbs and spices do not yield appreciable nutrients and can be better described as condiments rather than foods. Substances used in recipes such as baking powder, raising agents and vinegar could be regarded as ‘ingredients‘ rather than foods or food additives. Salt can also be described as a seasoning or condiment, or can be described as an ingredient.

All of these non-food substances are still regarded as ‘food’ or allowed in food within the broad definition of ‘food’ in food supply regulations and some are regarded as either primary food commodities or food products.

Foods described in food-based Dietary 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 (16). To wean out foods for optimal nutritional health from the vast array on the supermarket shelves, food is qualified by adjectives (17). 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.


There is a continuum from the basic form of a food from its raw state (primary food commodity) through simple processing of that food (secondary food commodity) to fractionation of foods (derived products) to complex industrial processing resulting in a final branded manufactured food product which may contain primary food commodities, secondary food commodities and/or derived foods as ingredients as well as non-food substances. Even though all types may technically be regarded as ‘food’, there is a quantum difference from raw foods to branded food products.

Returning to the 40,000 food products on the supermarket shelves as well as that available in restaurants and other food outlets, it becomes complex trying to differentiate basic foods to nourish us from the more complex ‘products’. Experts group foods differently depending on whether looking from a nutritional, economic or food supply view-point. There are numerous food groupings to cover these situations, with varying degrees of complexities, which I will be discussing in a series of posts.


This is the first in a series of posts on FOOD.

  1. FOOD – what is it?
  2. FOOD – what has it become?

This is an update of a post first published on 18 January 2018.


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. Eloi Chazelas, Mélanie Deschasaux, Bernard Srouret al; Food additives: distribution and co-occurrence in 126,000 food products of the French market. Sci Rep 2020 Mar 4;10(1):3980. doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-60948-w

2. FOOD SWITCH: state of the Food Supply. The George Institute for Global Health. April 2019.

3. Whitney, E; Rolfes, SR; Crowe, T; Cameron-Smith, D; Walsh, A; Understanding Nutrition. Australia and New Zealand Edition. Centage Learning Australia 2014.

4.Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code – Standard 1.1.2 -2 – Definitions used throughout the Code. [‘Food’ and 1.1.2-2 (2)]. Australian Government. Accessed 21 January 2021 [Note: 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, and food safety. Compliance is monitored by state authorities and the definitions of ‘food’ fall within state legislation.]

5. Food Act 2003. Tasmanian. Current version 01 July 2019 to date (accessed 18 February 2021 15:16)

6. AUSTRALIA. From: Food Act 2003 No 43. NSW legislation. NSW Government. Current version 8 January 2019 to date (accessed 26 January 2021 at 10:03) – [Meaning of “food”. (1)  In this Act, food includes: (a)  any substance or thing of a kind used, or represented as being for use, for human consumption (whether it is live, raw, prepared or partly prepared), or (b)  any substance or thing of a kind used, or represented as being for use, as an ingredient or additive in a substance or thing referred to in paragraph (a), or (c)  any substance used in preparing a substance or thing referred to in paragraph (a) (other than a substance used in preparing a living thing) if it comes into direct contact with the substance or thing referred to in that paragraph, such as a processing aid, or (d)  chewing gum or an ingredient or additive in chewing gum, or any substance used in preparing chewing gum, or (e)  any substance or thing declared to be a food under a declaration in force under section 6 of the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act 1991 of the Commonwealth, whether or not the substance, thing or chewing gum is in a condition fit for human consumption. (2)  However, food does not include a therapeutic good within the meaning of the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989 of the Commonwealth. (3)  To avoid doubt, food may include live animals and plants.

7. UNITED STATES. From: The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (section 201(f)) states
that “The term ‘food’ means (1) articles used for food or drink for man or other animals, (2) chewing gum, and (3) articles used for components of any such article.” Thus, animal food includes both livestock feed and pet (companion) animal food. The term food additive is also defined in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (section 201(s)) as any substance that directly or indirectly becomes a component of a food or that affects a food’s characteristics.

8. Commodity’ definition. Investopedia

9. What a commodity is and how its trading market works. How commodities trading affects food prices. The Balance (Website) Accessed 21 January 2021

10. Carlos A Monteiro, Geoffrey Cannon, Renata B Levy, Jean-Claude Moubarac, Maria Lc Louzada et. al.; Ultra-processed foods. What they are and how to identify them. Public Health Nutr 2019 Apr;22(5):936-941. doi: 10.1017/S1368980018003762.

11.a Definition and Classification of Commodities. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 1994

11.b.The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), summarizes commodity food lists on its website and further groups them aggregated to their primary commodity equivalent (accessed 18 February 2021).

11.c. Commonly Consumed Food Commodities EPA
United States Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed 21 January 2021

12.a. Food groups and sub-groups | FAO/WHO GIFT | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations World Health Organization. 2021. Accessed 25 January 2021.

12.b. Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code – Standard 22

13. Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code – Standard 1.1.2-2 – Definitions used throughout the Code (non-food items) Australian Government. Accessed 21 January 2021

14. Fox BA, Cameron AG. Food Science, Nutrition and Health. London: Hodder & Stoughton; 1989.

15. Condiment Definition. Miriam-Webster Dictionary

16. National Health and Medical Research Council. Eat For Health: Australian Dietary Guidelines 2013. Glossary. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council, 2013.

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