Today there are over 120,000 (1) food products available world-wide and up to 30,000 choices in Australian supermarkets (2). Food-types range from basic foods to extractions from foods to products with a multitude of ingredients.
This is a brief outline of the definitions of the different foods and food product types, and descriptions of what is classified as foods and what isn’t. Below are links to posts with further information.
Nutrition science defines foods as: ‘products 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).
Food law has a broad sweep effectively defining 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 that comes in contact with that substance, such as processing aids; or chewing gum (5).
Each country have their own legal definition of ‘food’. As examples, more detailed definitions used in Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) (5a) and United States (5b) legislation are provided below in notes.
Economics defines a commodity as ‘a basic good … interchangeable with other commodities of the same type’ that can be traded for profit (6). As commodities are interchangeable, they do not include branded products (7).
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 1994 divided food commodities into primary food commodities (fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, eggs, raw milk, meats and similar) and processed food commodities (eg: wheat flour, dried fruit, cheese) (8). The latter are primary commodities that have been processed, manufactured, dehydrated or milled.
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.
The FAO/WHO GIFT (Global Individual Food consumption data Tool) defines foods, other than primary food commodities, as processed foods (‘foods which undergone some sort of processing which partly changed their nature in relation to their form as fresh foods’ (9). 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’),
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’); 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’).
Although not specifically defined, FSANZ refers throughout to ‘products’ when referring to items after processing as separate from ‘foods’ from which they are derived (examples being ‘milk products’, ‘egg products’, ‘meat products’, ‘cereal products’), or to manufactured products (such as ‘confectionery products’). (10)
Although ‘food’ (as defined by law) is whatever we eat, not everything we eat within a final ‘food product’ is ‘food’ (as defined by nutrition science). That is because some substances added to food products for consumption are not defined as foods as they are either not nutritionally required or not consumed on their own, but as an ingredient in another food.
Substances not regarded as foods that are permitted to be added to foods include (11, 12):
PH control agent
Biologically active substances
Some foodstuffs found in nature (eg honey, maple syrup), food extractions (added sugars, fats and oils) yield energy (calories / kilojoules) but no appreciable levels of any other nutrient. These can be considered ingredients, as they are rarely eaten as foods on their own. (13)
Substances used in food recipes such as baking powder, raising agents, vinegar and sodium (salt) could also be regarded as ingredients rather than foods or food additives.
A condiment is ‘something used to enhance the flavor of food’ (14) Herbs and spices do not yield appreciable nutrients and can be better described as condiments rather than foods. (15) From a culinary view-point sauces, pastes, chutneys, mayonnaise, dressings, and some soups can also be considered as condiments. Salt can also be described as a seasoning or condiment, so there is an overlap meaning with ingredient.
Tea and coffee do not yield nutrients (except via the milk or sugar consumed with them) and have a mild stimulant effect through caffeine which acts via the nervous system not through digestion. Likewise cocoa has a stimulant effect. Thus, they act as drugs, not foods. Alcohol acts as both a food (yielding energy) and as a drug. (15)
Toxins and contaminants may be present in foods from natural or added sources.
Remnants from processing aids may be found in a final food product. (16)
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 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’, they are not the same.
Returning to the 30,000 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’ 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 is a topic for a future discussion.
First published 18 July 2020
Updated 25 January 2021
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.
REFERENCES AND NOTES:
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.]
5a. 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.
5b. 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.
6. ‘Commodity’ definition. Investopedia
7. What a commodity is and how its trading market works. How commodities trading affects food prices. The Balance (Website) Accessed 21 January 2021
8.Definition and Classification of Commodities. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 1994
9. Food groups and sub-groups | FAO/WHO GIFT | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations World Health Organization. 2021. Accessed 25 January 2021.
10. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand. Part 1. Standard 1.1.2 – Definitions used throughout the Code [updated 31 July 2020. Accessed 25 January 2021. Available online. and Part 2 Standards 2.1.1 and following.
11. 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
12. Commonly Consumed Food Commodities EPA
United States Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed 21 January 2021
13. Monteiro, C et al. Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them. Public Health Nutr. 2019 Apr; 22 (5): 936-941.
14. Condiment Definition. Miriam-Webster Dictionary
15. Fox BA, Cameron AG. Food Science, Nutrition and Health. London: Hodder & Stoughton; 1989.
16.Briggs D, Walqvist M, Eating Matters. Methuen Haynes; 1985