Turning our focus to meals and away from classifying foods as healthy or unhealthy

In my Quora inbox I recently received the question, “Why does the food industry not create healthy food products?” As a scientist I can’t really answer that question without a definition of a “healthy” food product. As a blogger, I don’t have the same restrictions. There are so many concepts of what is healthy and what is unhealthy. It seems that the more that nutrition scientists and food writers try to characterize healthy and unhealthy foods, the more confused we get. And then we get into the Never, Never Land of sorta healthy/sorta unhealthy foods. What about them? Back to the Quora question, if we limit a processed food to only five ingredients and declare a product with more than five ingredients as unhealthy, then we have put the food industry in a box it can’t break out of. It’s a restriction not placed on a restaurant chef or a home cook. But, are chefs and home cooks necessarily preparing healthier foods?

boxes of Shredded Wheat and Fiber One
Two ultra-processed food products. Healthy or unhealthy?

So, what is healthy, anyway? A common theme these days is that we don’t eat nutrients, we eat food. The public is confused about healthiness and so are the so-called experts. The whole discussion reminds me of the famous quote of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart on pornography “I know it when I see it.” The problem is who is looking at healthiness and what do they see? Foods are composed of nutrients and other components. But, how many essential nutrients must something contain to be nourishing? And, how many negative components such as additives, fat, salt, starch, and sugar before the unhealthy attributes outweigh healthy ones? And, are there good and bad additives, fats, salts, starches, and sugars? If so, how good do they have to be considered healthy or bad to be unhealthy? Then there is saturated fat vs. polyunsaturated oil. Which one is healthy? Or can we eat meat, can we go plant-based, or do we need to go vegan? Healthy just doesn’t seem that simple to me! It just lands us back in Never, Never Land.

Classifying foods as healthy or unhealthy. The internet and many food writers seem to have no trouble in labeling foods as healthy or unhealthy. Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients, but we need to be careful not to consume too much of the essential mineral sodium as too much can lead to high blood pressure. Even consuming too much calcium or vitamin D can become unhealthy. We also like to take in antioxidants and other related molecules that help prevent chronic diseases, and it is generally better for us to consume these beneficial compounds in food rather than in supplements. But can we overdo such a good thing? We are told that we should avoid heavily-processed or ultra-processed food as these products are filled with too much sugar, salt, and fat. Minimally processed foods are acceptable, but what constitutes minimal processing?

Stacked cans of sliced carrots, three bean salad, creamed corn, diced tomatoes, sliced beets, new potatoes, wax beans, and mixed vegetables
Healthy or unhealthy? Minimally processed or heavily processed?

The idea of minimal processing to a food scientist is more like pre-cut, bagged lettuce, or baby carrots than canned or frozen vegetables. I worked one summer at an asparagus canning plant, and canning is NOT minimal processing. Hundreds of sealed cans were placed in a large, round, metal container with tennis-ball sized holes on the sides and bottom and hoisted into a tall steam retort (equivalent to a pressure cooker). Three of these containers were lowered into the retort before it was sealed with industrial-sized wing nuts. The asparagus was then cooked at about 250ºF for 18 minutes before being cooled down. The process is known as commercial sterilization and much more destructive to microbes and some nutrients than anything performed in a home or restaurant kitchen. The two nights I worked retorts I estimate that I lost about 4% of my body weight as it was so hot and such hard work! Nothing minimal about the process.

burrito shell half covered with peanut butter, mayonnaise, and banana slices
A peanut butter burrito. Balanced or unbalanced? Fusion cuisine or culturally insensitive?

Eating a balanced diet is the default that many dietitians, nutritionists, and food scientists turn to when trying to shift the conversation away from classifying foods as healthy or unhealthy. Elizabeth Strawbridge described the importance of developing an overall dietary plan. The problem with talking about balanced diets is that most eaters today associate a ‘diet’ with weight loss and not the foods and beverages we typically consume. Such an association tends to render the phrase ‘balanced diet’ meaningless.

Although we are bombarded with contradictory recommendations there seems to be a growing consensus that a healthy diet is one rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, high-quality protein, healthy fats, and no bad stuff. We are urged to avoid processed foods, particularly ultra-processed products. Not too long ago I fielded an inquiry from someone working with a chain of institutions involved in serving meals daily to their clients. The question was “How could they distinguish high-quality foods from low-quality foods, and where did processed foods fit in to the picture?” Layered into such a question is the role of incorporating cultural norms and expectations. Have dietary recommendations in this country become culturally insensitive?

Such an exercise led me to look for a place in between foods and diets.

breaded fish, zucchini and roasted potatoes
A healthy or unhealthy meal?

Meals and snacks may represent that meeting place. Since talking about foods and diets doesn’t seem to hit the sweet spot, the best way to think about food may be at the level of meals and snacks not individual foods or overall diets. When we eat, most of us eat combinations of foods. I suggest that there may be room for common ground. Does every part of a meal need to be healthy? I grew up eating a meat, some form of potato, a vegetable, and a dessert at every meal my mother prepared, typical of midwestern cuisine at the time. Sometimes the dessert was fresh fruit, sometimes fruit cocktail, and occasionally a slice of home-baked pie topped with ice cream. An occasional sweet dessert could be considered part of a nutritious diet or meal but certainly not as a healthy or high-quality food.

Snacks tend to focus on a more limited number of items, typically a food and a beverage. Would it be so unhealthy to alternate fresh fruits, or nuts with sweets for our snacks? Is a diet soda or flavored water an acceptable beverage as part of snack? What about reduced fat milk? Is a home-baked snack healthier than a processed one? Why or why not? One last point–once a fresh vegetable or fruit is cooked, it is no longer fresh whether as a meal or a snack.

plate of chicken, broccoli and diced cauliflower
A healthy or an unhealthy meal?

So where do we go from here? It appears that the gap between healthiness of foods and diets is too wide and tends to skew to vested interests on both sides. Could we possibly re-center on meals and snacks? And would every meal need to be healthy? Maybe not, but we would need some mechanism to guard against eating too many unhealthy meals and balancing them out with some healthier ones. When I ran this idea by Linn Steward who has written about designing healthy meals, she suggested balancing out the nutritional quality of our meals over a three-day period. Not everybody, myself included, is as into their eating patterns as Linn is.

To achieve such a goal would require us to enter every food we eat into a food diary. Then we would need to run our choices through a special software package that calculates the balance of nutrients against components we should limit. Such an effort could turn us into compulsive and potentially disordered eaters! Even a 1-day compilation can become burdensome. But couldn’t most of us know an unhealthy meal when we see it and compensate with a healthier offering the next time we step up or sit down to the plate?

Where my idea to focus on meals and snacks becomes important is at the institutional level where a specific population is fed daily. In the healthy/unhealthy foods case baked sweets for dessert would never be allowed. If the focus shifts to the healthiness of meals, however, a brownie or scoop of ice cream could be permissible particularly if sweets are not available at every meal. In addition, too often meals are patterned after the standard American tradition of meats, breads, vegetables and fresh fruits. As our population becomes more diverse, healthy meals will include dishes from other cultures that don’t necessarily fit the traditional American meal pattern. Our society seems to be polarized on everything these days. Is there no meeting point between the healthiness of foods, culturally diverse meals, and diets upon which we can agree? I would like to see if we can use this site as a starting point for a conversation on the topic.

Next week: Assorted books about food or viral threats for your reading pleasure

6 thoughts on “Turning our focus to meals and away from classifying foods as healthy or unhealthy

  1. We need more discussion on these important issues. I too hope that your site becomes a starting point for a conversation on these topics. NOVA works for me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t cook with processed or ultra-processed foods. It just means I’ve made a privileged place for perishables and minally processed foods.


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