What, Exactly, Is a Healthful Food?

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When it comes to food, defining "healthy" is a major preoccupation of food companies these days. Marketers are falling all over each other trying to label food products with numbers or symbols to convince you that their products are better-for-you choices. These, as I keep saying (see posts under "Scoring systems"), are about marketing, not health.

Now, the Strategic Alliance, the component of the Oakland-based Prevention Institute devoted to "promoting healthy food and activity environments," has produced a working definition of a healthful food. Its report, Setting the Record Straight: Nutritionists Define Healthful Food, applies three principles:

Healthful food should be (1) wholesome; (2) produced in ways that are good for people, animals, and natural resources; and (3) available, accessible, and affordable.

This is a food system definition that makes scoring systems unnecessary. "Wholesome," says this document, means foods that are minimally processed, full of naturally occurring nutrients, produced without added hormones or antibiotics, and processed without artificial colors, flavors, or unnecessary preservatives.

I wonder how many of those highly processed products in supermarket center aisles can meet this definition?

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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