Today there are over 40,000 food products in supermarkets. Food-types range from basic foods to extractions from foods to food products with a multitude of ingredients. Some questions arise. What exactly is a food? When does a food stop being a food and become an ingredient in a food product? Is every ingredient in a food product classed as a food? Is a basic fresh food different than a manufactured food product? When does a food product stop being a food product and become a formulation?

The answers to these questions are not simple. Clear definitions help in understanding.



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’ (1).

Food law has a broad sweep effectively defining food as: ‘anything that is intended or offered for human consumption’ (5) 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 (6).

Food Commodities:

Economics defines a commodity as ‘a basic good … interchangeable with other commodities of the same type’ that can be traded for profit (2). Food commodities are available to wholesale food distributors and food manufacturers. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 1994 classified 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) (3). The latter are primary commodities that have been processed, manufactured, dehydrated or milled. As commodities are interchangeable, they do not include branded products (4).

Processed Foods:

The final foods for sale to consumers include ‘foods’ (primary food commodities), processed food commodities and branded food products. The FAO/WHO GIFT (Global Individual Food consumption data Tool) categorizes foods, other than primary food commodities, into processed foods (‘foods which undergone some sort of processing which partly changed their nature in relation to their form as fresh foods’,  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’).

In summary, there is a continuum from the basic form of a food through simple processing measures to complex industrial processing to a final food product (7). Even though all types may technically be regarded as ‘foods’, they are not the same.

Non-food substances:

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):
Food additives
Flavouring substances
Colouring additives
Dough strengthener
PH control agent
Added vitamins
Added minerals
Flavour enhancers
Fat replacers
Yeast nutrients
Firming agents
Biologically active substances
Dietary fibre
Inulin-type fructans
Protein substitutes


Food commodity groups

Food commodities are those available for food wholesalers and food manufacturers. FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius, in its section on pesticide limits, lists food commodities under the following categories:

Primary Food Commodities of Animal Origin

Primary Food Commodities of Plant Origin

Processed Foods of Animal Origin

Processed Foods of Plant Origin

The FAO provides a listing of groupings for food commodities, with main food-groups described in more detail in 1994 (3,8).

Foods groups in dietary guidelines

National dietary guidelines aim to translate what we need nutritionally from that available. In the Australian Dietary Guidelines (ADG) food is not specifically defined (9). To wean out foods for optimal health from the vast array on the supermarket shelves, food is qualified by adjectives with terms ‘whole foods’, ‘nutritious foods’ and ‘discretionary choices’ (10). Whole foods are ‘foods themselves for example fruit, vegetables, bread, pasta, lean meat, milk, yoghurt and not the food component for example calcium, iron, protein’. Nutritious foods ‘make a substantial contribution to a range of nutrients, have an appropriate nutrient density, and are compatible with the overall aims of these guidelines’ are 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 described as those high in saturated fat, sugar, salt and alcohol; such as biscuits, cakes, pastries, pies, processed meats, commercial burgers, pizza, fried foods, potato chips, crisps, and other savoury snacks. Fats and oils are considered separately; oils and nuts considered ‘healthy fats’; animal fats discretionary. Other countries offer similar yet differing approaches to separating nutritious from less-nutritious foods.

Food Groups in Food Consumption Databases

FAO/WHO GIFT nutrition-sensitive food grouping

1.     Cereals and their products
2.     Roots, tubers, plantains and their products
3.     Pulses, seeds and nuts and their products
4.     Milk and milk products
5.     Eggs and their products
6.     Fish, shellfish and their products
7.     Meat and meat products
8.     Insects, grubs and their products
9.     Vegetables and their products
10.   Fruits and their products
11.   Fats and oils
12.   Sweets and sugars
13.   Spices and condiments
14.   Beverages
15.   Foods for particular nutritional uses
16.    Food supplements and similar
17.   Food additives
18.   Composite dishes.
19.   Savoury snacks




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)


Herbs and spices do not yield appreciable nutrients and can be better described as condiments rather than foods. (14)


Tea and coffee also 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. (14)

Unintentional contaminants:

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. (15)

First published 18 July 2020
Updated 23 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.



1. Whitney, E; Rolfes, SR; Crowe, T; Cameron-Smith, D; Walsh, A; Understanding Nutrition. Australia and New Zealand Edition. Centage Learning Australia 2014.
2. ‘Commodity’ definition. Investopedia
3.Definition and Classification of Commodities. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 1994
4. What a commodity is and how its trading market works. How commodities trading affects food prices. The Balance (Website) Accessed 21 January 2021
5. 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 online https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/F2017C00715. Accessed 21 January 2021.
6. Tasmanian Government. Food Act 2003. 2015.
7. 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.  In Australia and New Zealand the statutory authority on food standards for safety and labelling is Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Compliance is monitored by state authorities and the definitions of food fall within state legislation.
8. Commodities which are aggregated or standardized to their primary equivalent in commodity balances demand and food balance sheets. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (Accessed 21 January 2021)
9. National Health and Medical Research Council. Eat For Health: Australian Dietary Guidelines Summary. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council, 2013.
10. National Health and Medical Research Council. Eat For Health. Australian Dietary Guidelines. Providing the Scientific Evidence for Healthier Australian Diets. 2013. AND
National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Dietary Guidelines. Glossary.

11. Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code – Standard 1.1.2 – Definitions used throughout the Code 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. Fox BA, Cameron AG. Food Science, Nutrition and Health. London: Hodder & Stoughton; 1989.
15.Briggs D, Walqvist M, Eating Matters. Methuen Haynes; 1985