Understanding food

04 March 2006

Today's consumers in Europe can benefit from an unprecedented variety of food and food products, as well as an unparalleled amount of information about food, to help ensure that diets are nutritious. In particular, many modern food labels provide detailed information to help consumers understand the nutritional content of the foods they purchase. As a result, consumers are better able to make informed decisions with regard to which foods, and in what quantities, are best for good health.


Foods are derived from both plants and animals, and most foods are complex mixtures of different components. They contain energy and nutrients to help the body grow, maintain and repair itself. They contain water, without which life would not exist, and many ingredients to help the body function normally. Finally, foods also contain a very large number of components that affect texture, colour and flavour, making foods appealing and, therefore, pleasant to eat.


Our bodies need about 40 different nutrients to maintain health. Some are required in relatively large quantities and are known as macronutrients, carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Micronutrients are needed in smaller quantities and include vitamins, minerals and trace elements.

Carbohydrates and fats are the major sources of energy in our diets, Proteins also contribute energy, but their more important role is to provide amino acids to promote growth (in children) and to repair body tissues. Vitamins generally help regulate body processes, as do contain minerals and trace elements. Minerals such as calcium, magnesium and phosphorus also provide important growth and repair functions in bones and teeth. Sodium, chloride and potassium help maintain the composition of body fluids.

Different people have different energy needs. Very active people - athletes, those with physically active jobs - need lots of energy from food. People who are less active or who have sedentary jobs need less energy. Men usually need more energy than women and adults need more than children. Requirements for nutrients also differ at different ages and stages; for example, during rapid adolescent growth and during pregnancy, people need extra protein and minerals. When it comes to micro- nutrients, however, daily requirements vary less between individuals than they do for macronutrients.

The Modern Food Supply Meeting Consumer Needs

The social and technological developments of the past 10-20 years have significantly influenced the variety of food available, as well as how it is purchased and prepared.

  • Improvements in processing, transport, storage and distribution of food and food products mean there is no longer near-complete dependence on foods grown and processed locally. Modern canning, freezing. chilling and modified-atmosphere packaging have all contributed to the revolution in food processing. Also, new transport methods have brought more and more fresh produce into super- markets. One major European supermarket chain estimates that the number of food items in a typical retail store increased from 550 in 1954 to more than 10.000 only 40 years later (Sainsbury's, 1995).
  • Eating in the home has become more informal and individual and less predictable (King, 1983). A survey in France indicated that time spent each day eating at the table decreased from two hours 30 minutes in 1965 to one hour 20 minutes in 1995 (INSEE). Belgians now spend a similar amount of time around the table (IPB - L'heure du temps). Increasingly, children may 'Tend for themselves" in preparing and eating meals and snacks. Increases in disposable income, the number of working women and single-person households, and the amount of leisure time have created a demand for whole now ranges of convenience foods. In turn, new technologies in home kitchens (refrigerators, freezers, microwaves and smaller appliances) have helped to facilitate the meeting of this demand. Convenience has also stimulated demand for "processed" fresh foods - trimmed vegetables In microwave trays, prepared vegetable and fruit salads, prepared meat pies and terrines, to name but a few.
  • The evolution of the supermarket industry and developments in food labelling and consumer information about food have influenced the choices available to consumers, as well as their knowledge and buying habits.
  • Eating out or bringing fully prepared meals home has become more popular than ever. 24% of Belgians never prepare a meal while 11% eat outside the home every day and 72% sometimes eat out (IPB - L'heure du temps). In France, annual per capita consumption of frozen foods, especially ready-prepared meals, increased from 2 kilos to 37 kilos between 1965 and 1995 (Secodip). Heightened
  • Heightened awareness of the connection between eating and health has increased demand for certain types of food products - low-fat, reduced-sugar, low-calorie, fibre-rich, added vitamins and minerals.

"Good Foods" or "Good Diets"?

Because of the immense diversity in the composition of foods and the broad range of needs for balanced nutrition, no single food can supply all the essential nutrients. Therefore, one of the most fundamental principles of healthy eating is variety: the need to consume a broad range of foods on a regular basis. Said another way, there really is no such thing as "good" or "bad" food or "healthy" or "unhealthy" food; all foods can play a role in the diet, It is what is eaten in combination and over a period of time - at meals, in snacks, over a day or a week - that is really important, For example, a meal that is lower in a particular nutrient can be balanced by one richer in that nutrient on another occasion. Balance is achieved over time. It is the combinations of foods and whether they supply the needs of the particular individual which determine whether a diet is "good" or "bad".

Choosing A Balanced Diet

Foods are generally classified into broad groups based largely on their biological nature and/or the nutrients they provide. The basic categories of food include: cereals and other foods rich in carbohydrates such as potatoes; vegetables and fruit; meat and fish and other sources of protein; milk products. These food groups are sometimes used to develop models and guides to help consumers select foods that make up a balanced diet. Examples are the pyramid model, which is used in the United States (US Department of Agriculture, Human Nutrition Information Service, 1992) and the plate model, which has been developed into a National Food Guide in the UK as part of the Health of the Nation strategy (UK Health Education Authority, 1994).

There is a danger that these food classifications over- simplify the process of building a healthy diet, since some foods can be categorized into more than one group. For example, some bean-type vegetables, (soybeans, peas, green beans, white beans, kidney beans, etc.) are also important sources of protein and are, there-fore, alternative options to replace meat. Similarly, cheese, which is a milk product, is an alternative protein source to meat. Also, none of these approaches to food classifications take into account composite foods such as ready-prepared meals or cooked food such as fried potatoes.

So, in today's real world where people consume large amounts of pre-prepared foods - either at home or in restaurants or other public places - there is a need to understand that these composite meals contain food products from mare than one food group, but not necessarily in the best proportions. In addition, the cooking process itself alters foods:

  • Cooking vegetables may reduce water-soluble vitamins such as vitamin C.
  • The use of fats for frying or baking and the addition of high-fat items such as cream or cheese to low-fat foods such as potatoes, lean meat or fish will raise the overall fat content of a meal.

Therefore, in thinking about balanced diets, it is important to be aware of both the components of food products and the methods use d to prepare them. Fortunately, this is not as difficult as it might seem, since food in restaurants or packaged food products ire usually prepared using the same principles as would be used in the home. Also, food labels can be a useful source of information about packaged foods. All of this highlights the importance of learning about dietary considerations when acquiring cooking skills at home and at school.

A Useful Guide

One way of looking at foods that better takes into consideration the characteristics of our modern world is as follows,

  • Foods rich in carbohydrates - broad, pasta, rice. yams, potatoes - should be seen as the largest single component of a meal or snack. These provide energy and some protein and a rich mixture of vitamins, minerals and fibre. Whole-grain cereal products are especially beneficial in this respect. It is a common misconception that carbohydrates, including sugars, are fattening. In fact, they contain only 4 kcal per gram, which is less than half the calories of fat.
  • Plenty of vegetables and fruit should also be included each day, either at meal times or as snacks. Not only do these provide additional vitamins and minerals, but -they are also thought to be rich in elements which may help protect against certain chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease and cancer.
  • Diets should also contain foods rich in protein such as meat, or alternatives such as fish, poultry, eggs, bean-type vegetables, nuts or cheese. These foods are also rich in vitamins and minerals, and red meat is an important source of iron.
  • Energy-rich foods such as spreading and cooking fats. fried foods, cakes, pastries, biscuits and confectionery can be enjoyed in moderation. In reducing our total fat intake, we should reduce the amount of saturated fat we eat and ensure that we consume some mono-unsaturated fats (MUFA) and some polyunsaturated ones (PUFA) to provide the fatty acids essential for health, Saturated fats are found mainly in meats, dairy products and the hydrogenated vegetable oils used in baked products. PUFA occur in vegetables and fish oils, while some vegetable oils are rich in MUFA, Meat and dairy fat also contain some MUFA,
  • Water is vital to life and the intake of fluids has to be balanced over a shorter time - not more than a day - than the intake of nutrients. About half our water needs are provided by the foods we eat and the other half by drinks such as tap or bottled water, fruit juices, tea, coffee, soft drinks, and milk. Normally our total daily intake of water is around two litres.

It should be noted that this strategy contrasts somewhat with an approach common in many northern European countries. Here, consumers tend to base a meal around a protein-rich food such as meat or fish and accompany it with smaller amounts of carbohydrate-rich foods (such as bread, potatoes, rice or pasta) and vegetables.

Variety And Balance

"Processed food", in its broadest definition, facilitates the selection of a balanced diet, at least in part because it enables people who lead busy lives to shop less frequently and to stack a wide range of foods in refrigerators and freezers on which to base varied meals. Convenience foods may be of particular value when preparation time is limited. Manufactured, chilled and frozen ready-prepared Meal items such as ready-to-cook vegetables, frozen pizza and pasta dishes and take-away salads -along with restaurant meals and "fast food" - can play a useful Part in a healthy, varied diet if chosen sensibly. We have seen that the modern food supply provides plenty of opportunity for variety, The concept of a balanced diet is an old one that originally evolved from the need to consume a diet that would prevent the development of of deficiency diseases, Provided one is eating normal quantities of food, a varied diet is likely to provide enough of all nutrients required by the body. By the 1980s, the idea of a balanced diet was related to concerns about dietary excesses of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, fats) and the. relation between) diet and various specific "diseases of affluence" such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. This led to a perception that optimal nutrition is the most effective means of ensuring good health and Well- being, a view that is gaining acceptance.

However, many of the diseases of dietary excess have a major genetic component. In addition, there are non- dietary lifestyle factors which are highly relevant, Therefore, diets which are helpful to some individuals may not be relevant to others. The concept of optimal nutrition is that each individual should receive the most appropriate balance of nutrients for maintenance of good health.

  • While variety remains a key aspect of dietary balance, the idea that there are limitations on some foods, such as those-rich in saturates, and the need to include proportionately more of such foods as cereals. vegetables and fruit must now be incorporated into the concept of balance.
  • The time period over which balance should occur is also important. While the ideal may be for each meal to be balanced in and of itself, this does not have to be the case. Many experts now agree that adequate balance can be achieved over a period of days (Naismith. 1988). Nutrition education programmes, need to emphasise that balance can be achieved by eating a variety of foods over the day or week. Given the importance of fruit and vegetables, however, it is probably best to stress the inclusion of these foods - Including fruit juice - in the regular diet, preferably at each meal and as snacks. (European Code Against Cancer, 1995)
  • lt is now becoming apparent that the requirements of certain vitamins, minerals and trace elements (i.e. micronutrients) are not always adequately fulfilled by the food we eat, this is especially the case when people have a low energy (low calorie) intake. Individuals may have a low energy intake because they are sedentary, because they are trying to lose weight (a concern especially of teenage girls) or because they are athletes, such as gymnasts or jockeys, trying to control their weight. If in doubt, individuals should seek professional advice to ensure they have an adequate micronutrient intake.

Nutritional Information: It Is On The Label

In theory, the plethora of food products available today should facilitate the development of healthy personal and family diets. On the other hand, this presupposes that consumers know what is in these products and this can be difficult when they contain a variety of ingredients - for example, a pizza topped with cheese, salami and tomato; a ready-prepared stew with a combination of meat and vegetables; or a frozen mixture of several different vegetables. For this reason, increasingly informative labels an most processed foods can be very useful.

The first place to look for information on what a food contains is the ingredient list on the label. Ingredient lists give the components of the food product in descending order of importance by weight. So if vegetable fat or cheese, for example, appear high on the list, they are likely to be major ingredients, indicating a potentially high-fat food.

More information can be gained from "nutrition information" now given on many labels. Energy (calories) and fat are the key things to look for.

  • Energy. From carbohydrates, fats, proteins and alcohol. On labels it is described as kJ (kilojoules) and kcal (kilocalories or Calories). A typical active man needs about 10,600 kJ (2500 kcal) per day; an active woman about 8,400 kJ (2000 kcal).
  • Protein. Essential for growth and repair of body tissues, protein is listed in grams,
  • Carbohydrates (of which sugars are often listed separately) are the major source of energy and include the important starches which should form the basis of the diet. While often thought of as 'fattening', carbohydrates contain just 4 kcal per gram, which is less than half the calories of f t. Carbohydrates are listed in grams
  • Fat. Some dietary fat is needed to provide vitamins A, D and E and essential fatty acids. It is widely thought that many consumers in more affluent countries eat too much fat, putting them at risk of overweight or obesity. Saturated fat may also be listed. Current advice is that saturated fats should be only one-third of total fat intake (FAO/WHO). Fat is listed in grams.
  • Fibre. Found in vegetables, fruits and foods rich in starch, fibre adds bulk to the diet, helps satisfy hunger and may help protect against some diseases. It is often said that we eat too little fibre. Fibre is listed in grams.
  • Sodium. One of the components of common table salt, sodium enhances flavour and acts as a preservative in some foods. Some experts believe that those at risk of high blood pressure should reduce sodium intake. On the label, sodium is listed in grams.
  • Vitamins and minerals. There are many of these micronutrients that are necessary in very small quantities. Labels will list them in milligrams or micrograms and as a percentage of the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) of a particular vitamin or mineral.

Food laws require manufacturers to list nutrients per 100 grams of food or per 100 ml of liquid. If there is space on the label, manufacturers often add information such as nutrients per serving/portion. For example, on a breakfast cereal package, we may see information listed per 100 grams and per 30 gram serving. For some foods, the serving size may exceed 100 grams. The package may give information about the usual serving size of some products, while for others, e.g., a 330 ml can of a soft drink, the serving size is obvious.

People can learn a lot about the composition of foods from food labels on some fresh foods and most processed foods. This can be valuable for learning to predict what the composition of restaurant or take-away food might be. For example, a ready-made pizza in the supermarket could serve as a guide to the caldries and nutrients that a restaurant pizza is likely to contain. So it can be worth investing time in thinking about what is on the label.

Enjoyment: A Key Aspect of Health Eating

In todays climate of concern about the relationships between health and food, it is all too easy to overlook the important social functions of eating. In particular, it must be remembered that eating food should be enjoyable. The act of sitting down to a meal and sharing it with family and friends makes eating pleasurable. It also can facilitate the selection of a more varied diet, in contrast to situations where food is eaten on the run and viewed merely as necessary fuel. Furthermore, a diet based on many different foods should be more interesting and therefore, more enjoyable, than a diet containing a restricted range of foods.


While many options exist about the relative merits of, various foods, there is increasing evidence that the traditional concept of a balanced diet containing a wide variety of foods, and a diet that is balanced over days and not necessarily at every meal - should be our guiding principle.

At the same time, however, with the growing number of processed food products and whole meals available in retail stores, restaurants and elsewhere, it is increasingly important for consumers to understand something about the relative importance of various food components and the amounts of such components in food products. Only with this information can people make intelligent judgements about the food they eat.

Further Reading:

  1. European Code Against Cancer and Annex to Code Document CAN 15195, February 1995. Directorate General V, Luxembourg,
  2. Fishler, C. (1993). A Nutritional Cacophony or the Crisis of Food Selection in Affluent Societies. In "For a Better Nutrition in the 21st Century" edited by P Leathwood, M. Horisberger and WPT James. Nestlé Nutrition Workshop Series, Volume 27, Nestec Ltd- Vevey/Raven Press Ltd. New York 1993.
  3. Food and Agriculture Organisation/World Health Organisation (FAO/WHO) (1994). Fats and Oils in Human Nutrition, Report of a joint expert consultation. Rome: FAO/WHO.
  4. King, S. (1983). Trends in meal planning and eating habits. In: Turner, MR. (ed) Food and People, pp. 43-65. London: The British Nutrition Foundation.
  5. Naismith, DJ. (1988). Diet and health; striking a balance. In; Dobbing, J, (ed) A Balanced Diet? PP 1-26. London; Springer-Verlag.
  6. National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), France.
  7. Secodip, France. Research study executed on behalf of the Syndicate National des Fabricants de Surgelés.
  8. Tacheny, Thierry (1989). L'heure du temps. Editions IPB.

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