What Are Good and Bad Foods?

As dietitians, we often say there are no good and bad foods – only good or bad diets.  And our mantra has typically been “all foods fit.”   For the most part, I buy that.   It’s the total diet that really counts, not the specific nutritional profile of a single food.  Yet increasingly there are attempts to put foods in good and bad categories.  It’s a trend called “nutrient profiling.”  

I like the idea of flexibility and knowing that even the most fat-laden food with tons of nutritional baggage can be savored in moderation.  But there are benefits of giving people guidance on specific foods that should be eaten more frequently than others. 

That’s why there’s been an increase of front-of-pack nutrition labeling systems to help define what’s “healthy.” Various scoring systems are in place — or will soon be launched — to help define these  better-for-you choices.  You’ll find a range of approaches, from symbols and stars to ratings.

Now the Strategic Alliance  of the Prevention Institute has created  its own definition of a healthful food in the report Setting the Record Straight: Nutritionists Define Healthful Food.

The group has identified three major guiding principles of a healthful food:  

  • wholesome
  • produced in ways that are good for people, animals, and natural resources
  • available, accessible, and affordable

“Wholesome” is defined as minimally processed, full of naturally occurring nutrients, produced without added hormones or antibiotics, and processed without artificial colors, flavors, or unnecessary preservatives. Instead of simply focusing on the nutrients a food contains, the group is putting emphasis on a “food system where food is produced, processed, transported and marketed in ways that are environmentally sound, sustainable and just.”


Basically, it all comes down to “slow food,”  a principle that renowned restaurateur Alice Waters has been championing for years.  The Berkeley chef and “mother of slow food” has been on quite a roll recently — she was gloriously featured in an in-depth article on the “new food revolution” in the New York Times  and profiled by Leslie Stahl on “60 Minutes.”

alice-waters-60-min2All of this attention has sparked a bit of a blogosphere backlash, with critics complaining about her out-of-touch elitist approach given the current economic situation and her “inflexible brand of gastronomical correctness.”  

Don’t get me wrong, I adore Alice Waters and I appreciate all that she stands for.  I admire her dedication and enthusiasm for sustainable, locally grown food and gardens in school yards, backyards and even the White House lawn!  I like a back to basics approach and agree that food should be a source of pleasure.  And no doubt, we need to keep in mind both personal and planetary health when it comes to the foods we choose.  But I must admit, I also agree with some of the points made by Eat Me Daily:

“Having the opportunity of being on prime-time television, you’d think Alice Waters would show America how to prepare a quick and affordable, sustainable and organic meal, but no.  Waters cooks up Leslie Stahl an incredibly time-consuming luxurious breakfast with heirloom tomatoes (likely $5/lb) and an egg cooked in a long metal spoon that has to be hand-held over the fireplace in her kitchen.”

In these tough economic times, it’s critical that we’re offering people attainable solutions.  The reality is that people are struggling every day to make ends meet.  We need to inspire, not alienate.  Sometimes such a lofty ideal seems so out of reach that people feel defeated and simply throw in the towel.

You can feel good that you’re feeding your family well without buying fresh-picked heirloom tomatoes at the farmers’ market.  Waters is aghast at microwaves and food processing, but I disagree that frozen vegetables and canned beans are “bad” foods.  Yes, now we need to merge frugal, nutritious and “green,” but we also need to make it seem achievable to all.

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  • Hi Janet,

    I agree with your point that nutrition profiling is one of the hottest trends today. But not all systems are designed to define bad food separate from good food. NuVal’s system scores foods between 1 and 100, with a higher score indicating better overall nutrition quality. All the heavy lifting has been done in the background of the scoring process — more than 30 nutrients included in our algorithm, a nutrient’s concentration in a food compared to the recommended level of the nutrient in a “healthy” diet, and the relationship of the nutrient to disease risk — but all the consumer sees is a simple score. The use of the scores is designed around trading up for health. If you usually buy a cereal that scores a 27, switching to one that scores a 40 is definitely an improvement. It helps the consumer cut through the clutter and make improved food choices within a food category as well as across food categories (how do frozen waffles compare to cereal or bagels, for example) The program supports incremental changes with a result of healthier eating habits.

    If you’d like more information on our program, please do visit our website or feel free to contact me directly.

    Thanks for your work to continue to keep the discussion around nutrition and food current!

    Annette Maggi, MS, RD, LD, FADA
    Sr. Director of Nutrition
    NuVal LLC

  • I am intrigued by the recent trend towards front-of-the-box labeling on many products. I have written about Kellogg’s Nutrition-at-a-glance system and the traffic light system common in UK. On one hand, I am all for making the nutritional information simple and easy to understand for the consumers. But on the other, there is real risk of manipulating consumer choice by clever marketing since no good standards exist for the front of the box labeling. I am not suggesting more regulation; rather I would like to see a common industry standard emerge in the market which can help the consumers without misleading them. Is the Nuval system the answer as suggested by your previous commenter? I am not sure and I would love to get more information on this.

  • One of the problems with many of these scoring systems is that a lot of emphasis is placed on micronutrients, regardless of their origin. That gives manufacturers the recipe for a higher score–just add a few vitamins, and you’ll score higher. Add some fiber and you’ll have a star.

    That of course does not address what’s really wrong with the way we eat. It matters not one bit if the manufacturer added some vitamin A or C to his cookie. It’s still highly processed food, and there’s no proof that adding vitamins to processed food does us any good. If a fast food restaurant gave its customers a multivitamin pill with the combo meal, would it make the meal nutritious?

    By devising these criteria food companies are better able to design just the foods to fool us; add some cheap nutrients to the mix, make the serving a little smaller, and you get a health food.

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