Which foods are “healthy”?

In All, Food Products, General, Nutrition, Research Brief by Keri Szejda

Curious whether nutritionists and the public have a clear and consistent idea about what foods are “healthy”?

The New York Times surveyed nutritionists and members of the public and asked them to make simple assessments about 52 food items: Is the food “healthy,” “unhealthy,” or “I don’t know”?

The nutritionists – 672 of them – were all members of the American Society for Nutrition. Members of the public – 2000 of them – were a representative sample of registered voters.

For some foods, there was alignment between the nutritionists and the public. Thumbs up for apples, oranges, oatmeal, chicken, turkey, peanut butter, and baked potatoes – both groups considered all these foods to be “healthy”. But, thumbs down for burgers, beef jerky, diet soda, white bread, and chocolate chip cookies. Both groups categorized these foods as being “unhealthy”.

For other foods, nutritionists and the public seemed to disagree. Nutritionists – but not the public – thought that quinoa, tofu, sushi, hummus, wine, and shrimp should all be considered “healthy” foods. Meanwhile, members of the public – but not nutritionists – responded by categorizing granola bars, coconut oil, frozen yogurt, granola, Slimfast shakes, orange juice, and American cheese as “healthy” food choices.

Finally, there were some foods that didn’t have consensus from either group. Popcorn? Pork chops? Whole milk? Steak? Cheddar cheese? Who knows whether these are healthy?

There are important caveats that the study doesn’t cover. Some of the confusion could be attributed to how we think about the healthfulness of foods. We probably think about food in terms of degrees of healthiness rather than a binary “healthy” or “unhealthy”.  Carrots? Pretty darn healthy. Cheese? Kinda healthy. French fries? Not so healthy.

And the dose – how much you eat – certainly matters, too. Occasionally eating small amounts of steak is probably healthy – but eating large amounts everyday is not. Similarly, a glass of wine everyday is probably healthy – but binge drinking is not.

It’s an interesting study, though – and certainly underscores the public’s need for greater clarity in understanding how to make healthy food choices.