Industries in Depth

Think you understand healthy eating? Here’s why you might be wrong

Customers select vegetables at a supermarket in Hanoi September 20, 2014.

The public and nutritionists disagree on which foods are healthy and unhealthy Image:  REUTERS/Kham

Rachel Hallett
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Are granola, frozen yogurt and orange juice good for your health? You might think you know the answer – but would a nutritionist agree?

 Percentage of nutritionists saying foods are healthy
Image: New York Times

Having recently agreed to review its standards by which it assesses which foods can be described as “healthy”, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) surveyed hundreds of members of the American Society for Nutrition about the health values of 52 different foods.

The US regulator also carried out a survey of a representative sample of the American electorate, asking them their opinion on how healthy certain foods were.


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A healthy difference

The results revealed surprising disparities between the views of nutritionists and the general public on healthy eating.

Orange juice, American cheese, coconut oil, frozen yoghurt and SlimFast shakes were deemed far healthier by the public than the experts.

Granola created the biggest divide: 71% of the public thought it was healthy, compared with just 28% of nutritionists.

Several of the foods considered healthier by the public than by experts had something in common: they generally contained a lot of added sugar (something a nutritionist would probably be aware of).

 Food considered healthier by the public than experts
Image: New York Times
  Food considered healthier by the experts than the public
Image: New York Times

Quinoa, tofu, sushi, hummus, wine and shrimp were deemed to be healthier by experts than by the public.

The reason, according to FDA research, might be that these foods have only become part of the mainstream American diet relatively recently, and people may not be aware of their health benefits.

Other differences in opinion could be due to mixed messages in the media about healthy and unhealthy foods. For example, there are conflicting ideas about alcohol: while some believe moderate drinking has some health benefits, it's not clear where the line is between moderate and excessive consumption of alcohol.

So what foods should you eat?

There were some areas of consensus. Nearly everyone agreed that oranges, apples, oatmeal and chicken could be described as healthy, and also that chocolate-chip cookies, bacon, white bread and soda were not healthy.

“Twenty years ago, I think we knew about 10% of what we needed to know [about nutrition]," said Dariush Mozaffarian, Dean of the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. “And now we know about 40% or 50%.”

The researchers suggest that the differences in opinion are most likely due to the fact that scientists are better informed about current food trends, whereas consumers are more susceptible to the claims of food marketers.

Despite confusing data on what is classified as healthy and unhealthy, the overall opinion on the healthiest type of diet was “Mediterranean”; with 25% of nutritionists choosing it.

However, the most common answer, even among experts, was that there are “no special rules or restrictions” when it comes to choosing what to eat.

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