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.

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