We've all been there: you pick up a food item at the grocery store that has the word 'healthy' on it – but you're not quite sure what that means. Is it good for you? Is it nutritious? It is worth paying extra for?
Nutrition experts have been attempting to agree upon a clear definition for the term 'healthy,' and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now looking to standardize the term, too.
Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and adjunct assistant professor at UCLA's Fielding School of Public Health, recently spoke with us about how she defines a “healthy” food and diet.
How would you define 'healthy' when it comes to food?
I'd say foods that aren't associated with the development of chronic illness could be defined as healthy.
And healthy foods are as close to nature as possible. That would mean foods that aren't highly processed or adulterated.
What should we look out for in healthy foods?
Generally speaking, foods with fewer ingredients as well as ingredients that are recognizable as healthy. A list of ingredients that are easily recognizable as a food, such as walnuts and artichokes, can indicate a healthy food. Manufactured ingredients — with unrecognizable names like methyl paraben, maltodextrin, artificial color yellow 5 and the like — can indicate a food isn’t so healthy.
Single-ingredient foods, like green beans, edamame and avocado, are clearly healthy, but a frozen dinner made up of quinoa, bell peppers and tofu can be healthy too — as long as it doesn't have too many additives.
What type of foods and ingredients should we avoid?
Trans fats found in processed foods, added sugars, sodium and saturated fats found in animal proteins are some of the biggest contributors to heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancers. We also know that red meats are possible carcinogens, and processed meats are definite carcinogens, as defined by the World Health Organization.
I don't think foods with added sugar, trans fats, saturated fats, white flour or low fiber should have 'healthy' written on the packaging.
Which health claims on packaged foods could be misleading?
One reason why deciphering the health quality of packaged foods can be challenging is because of the FDA labeling laws that allow food and supplement manufacturers to make claims about the structure and function of a particular ingredient.
For example, a product’s packaging can designate that a cereal containing calcium is 'good for you' and ‘promotes bone health’ even if that cereal is laden with added sugars. Claims about particular ingredients can be misleading in understanding the nutritional value of the entire food.